Jesus Christ, we're here. And yet there's still more work to be done.
Despite the fact that Philadelphia finished a 7th seed in a universally acknowledged weaker conference, a case can be made for this statement: the Blackhawks, in their quest for Lord Stanley's ultimate prize, may very well be facing a mirror image of themselves. Let's take a look, shall we?
Michael Leighton will be backstopping the Flyers as far as we know, taking over after Brian Boucher went down in the middle of the postseason due to injury, but don't I shouldn't have to tell you not to let the word "back-up" fool you. Picked up off waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes when Ray Emery went down to a season-ending injury, Michael Leighton came into the Flyers' system (again) and helped them power through the middle part of the season. When Leighton went down to injury himself, Brian Boucher took over and <I>he</I> performed well enough to keep Michael Leighton in as a bench-warmer. Then <I>Boucher</I> got injured, but thankfully for Philadelphia, Leighton was ready. He shut out the Montreal Canadiens thrice in the span of 5 games, and should he go down to injury (because it'll just be the Flyers' luck, won't it?), Boucher seems to be waiting in the wings for him.
I don't know of any organization lucky enough to benefit from having two solid back-ups work out for the best when their supposed starter was taken out of the picture, but that's the Flyers for you. I think I've long decided that the adage "hot goaltenders win Cups" is as valid as they can get, but the term "hot" doesn't necessarily mean Roberto Luongo or Evgeni Nabokov. Acquiring elite goaltenders, as they are conventionally defined, isn't a sure path to the Finals. Sometimes all you need is for a regular goaltender to <I>get hot</I> at just the right time-- and that's what Leighton and Boucher seem to be.
Of course, others still will point out that they benefit as much from Philadelphia's defensive system, which we'll discuss next.
The Flyers signed Chris Pronger early in the season to a long-term deal, which they later realized locked his salary cap hit to their cap even after he retires because the contract kicks in after his 35th birthday, but if the Flyers win their first Cup since 1975 all that could be forgiven and forgotten. Chris Pronger has been everything as advertised for the Flyers this postseason, and maybe even more. After a dismal start to the regular season it seemed Pronger's leadership came in and helped get things together for the men of orange and black, and now he's terrorizing the blueline as if it was his god-given right. Partnered with Carle, who is as sound as you can expect to get when your other guy is Pronger, the top pair will eat up close to half a game's minutes night in and night out.
The anticipated match-up between Pronger and Byfuglien may be a sight to behold, but McClure over at Second City Hockey wonders if that's exactly how the Flyers will utilize Pronger, and I'm inclined to agree with him. He might end up shadowing Patrick Kane, and then we'll see a battle of position and size versus speed and skill that should be one for the ages.
The second pair of Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn explains why Philadelphia is basically running a 4-man blue line. Think of them as the Flyers equivalent of Campbell and Hjalmarsson, respectively. Timonen has just contributed more offensively, especially on the power play, this postseason, and Coburn plays like he has Hammer's body while Hammer plays like he has Coburn's.
Then there's Krajicek and Parent, who Laviolette and Flyers fans, I believe, would rather pretend didn't exist. In deference to their judgement, let's move on.
In the same manner that Blackhawks fans believe the Flyers have yet to face a team as offensively deep as the Hawks, the Blackhawks have also yet to face a team that can roll the 4 lines that the Flyers do. Their strength is down the middle, although Carter's been moved up to play wing on the first line and Claude Giroux at center in the third. Richards, Briere, Giroux, and even Blair Betts on the fourth line are solid foundations for the lines Laviolette plans to roll. Gagne, Richards, and Carter are going to be a handful as the Flyers' top line, but the danger always lies in depth the farther you get in the playoffs.
The Flyers' lethal second line came together out of evolutionary necessity: Briere, Leino, and Hartnell have been productive in ways that kept the Flyers alive while they were waiting for Carter and Gagne to recover from injuries that have sidelined them so far. The Wings gave up on Leino and traded him to the Flyers after a weak start to the season following a promising playoff debut, but on the Flyers' second line he's found something of a groove. Briere has been phenomenal, although barely anyone is aware of it, leading the Flyers in goals scored (9) and second to Richards in points (18). Hartnell provides the muscle in the group though 8 points in 17 games is barely just muscle.
It doesn't quite stop there, either. The third line is made up of Giroux, van Riemsdyk, and Asham, and Giroux has been nothing short of a revelation for the Flyers this postseason. James van Riemsdyk was picked second overall behind Kane and, early in his rookie year, made a decent case for Calder consideration. They can skate with the best of them although I don't believe they're functioning as a checking line the way the Hawks are using their third line, which means that none of the Hawks can take a shift off, and match-ups will definitely be one to watch, at any rate. This could be the battle of offensive depth versus offensive depth that neither team has really had the chance to face in the playoffs yet.
A Cup drought will end in four wins.