May 29, 2010

Hockey night in America.

I call hockey my second favorite sport, but that's probably bullshit.

I usually rank them:

1. Baseball
2. Hockey
3. Football
69. Basketball
100,000. Soccer

But the truth of the matter is, I'll watch pretty much any football game that's on. And, thanks to fantasy baseball and the fact that it's easy to multitask during, the same often goes for baseball. In fact, my roommate walked in on me watching an Orioles/A's game earlier this week; I felt like he caught me masturbating.

It's not the same with hockey. We buy the Center Ice package every season, but the only non-Flyers games I end up watching are the occasional Caps/Pens games on NBC. I love the sport, I love most of the personalities and I'll watch 80ish of 82 Flyers games, but for whatever reason, I refuse to pop on Sharks/Red Wings or Flames/Canucks.

So I don't know much about the Chicago Blackhawks. I know they're an extremely deep team offensively, I know their top four defensemen rival our top four, and I know that we gave them perennial 25+ goal scorer Patrick Sharp for absolutely fucking nothing. I also know that they employ Ben Eager, which is odd to me. They might as well roster Todd Fedoruk and Dan Kordic, too. But in terms of "expert" analysis, I've got bupkis.

So my key to this series (starting tonight, if you've been living in a cave with your eyes shut and your fingers in your ears) is essentially the same as the Montreal series: get to the goalie. Everyone raved about Halak before the Eastern Conference Finals, but the luster came off him fast after Game 1. The same goes for Antii Niemi; my friend Ryan texted me this morning to ask how Barry Melrose can call Niemi the hot goalie after Michael Leighton shut out the Canadiens three times in five games. Well, Niemi's the media darling on the consensus favorite right now, so I'm not surprised. But he's as untested, if not more so, than Leighton, and the Flyers have shown a nasty forecheck and an ability to get to the net so far in these playoffs. They're now well-schooled in Peter Laviolette's system, and if they keep the pressure on the Hawks, we'll see how good Niemi really is.

I'm now going to hide my prediction inside this wall of text, as it's not favorable to my hometown squad: Blackhawks in 6. But I don't mean any disrespect to the Flyers; I still find it hard to believe that they're even in the Stanley Cup Finals. It seems like a wonderful dream, or a fluke, or anything other than reality. They've played a fraud Devils team and the no. 6 and 8 seeds so far, and while everyone agrees that they've earned this Finals berth, the Blackhawks will be the first truly good team they've played. I expect a lot of 4-2, 3-1 Chicago wins, hard-fought games that ultimately are won by the more talented team.

But there's hope. There's always hope. IF Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell keep playing at the peak of their respective talents, IF the Flyers defense is as suffocating as it was during the high points of the Canadiens series, IF penalties are limited and power play opportunities are capitalized upon, the Flyers can win. But I think it'll take maximum effort and a few advantageous bounces here and there, and if someone put a gun to my head, I don't think the Flyers will play that well or get that lucky.

But then again, I don't know a god damn thing. I'm going off speculation and third-party analysis, and if that meant anything, we'd be gearing up for a Capitals/Sharks Finals. It'll be good hockey between two of the NHL's best teams; Melrose and John Buccigross picked this very series last fall, so technically, it's what a lot of people expected all along. The Flyers just took quite the roundabout route to get here.

The one thing that makes me think I'm wrong, that makes me think that this team is destined for even special-er things, is the image of Mike Richards going right for the Wales Trophy. This Flyers team isn't superstitious, isn't afraid of a little adversity. They're not cocky; in fact, they remind me of the Phillies in 2008. When they beat the Brewers and the Dodgers, there was a celebration, but there was also the sense that they were gunning for something more. They weren't satisfied, and neither are these Flyers. Just because this Finals appearance was unexpected, just because we didn't see it coming, doesn't mean it wasn't earned, that it's not deserved, that they won't take advantage of it to the fullest. Hey, I picked against that same Phillies team the 2008 World Series, and look how that worked out; let's all hope I'm wrong yet again.

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