Despite sloppy play from both teams, Chicago pulls out game 1 victory over Philadelphia
When the nearly-full moon rose above Lake Michigan late on Saturday evening, it was Blackhawks-red. Even the skies above were celebrating the Blackhawks' wild win over the Flyers that night at the United Center.
The 2009-2010 NHL season is going to be memorable for a lot of reasons - and perhaps most of all for the playoffs.
There has been a lot of talk on both sides of the ice of both Chicago and Philadelphia being "teams of destiny".
Chicago, an "Original Six" team, currently holds the longest Stanley Cup drought in history - 49 years. In fact, they've been waiting to hoist another Cup longer than the Flyers have been in existance (1967). The Blackhawks last won a Cup when the likes of hockey greats Stank Mikita, Bobby Hull, and Pierre Pilote graced the ice. The team had its share of ups and downs over the years, but as recently as 2004 was dubbed "the worst franchise in professional sports". When Rocky Wirtz took over the reins to the fanchise when his father, Bill, died, he set the stage for one of the most remarkable turnarounds in sports history. After making it most of the playoffs last year, Chicago was a strong favorite throughout this season to go all the way to the Finals this year, and they did not disappoint. The team is rich with talent, speed, and depth - not to mention several players who will likely be the faces of hockey for years to come.
Philadelphia came into the season with a good lineup, and early in the season, there were many who might've put money on them to go far. They had talent and were solid. They had a lot of midseason struggles, including injuries, a mid-season slump, and a change of coaches, and finished out the season with only 88 points - as stated earlier, enough points to make them rank 18th overall in the league. They squeaked into the 2010 playoffs literally on the last game of the season with an overtime shootout over the Rangers. They surprised a lot of people by taking out the NJ Devils in round one. The Flyers then made a historic effort in round effort against the Boston Bruins, becoming the 4th team in NHL history to come back from a 0-3 hole and win a playoff series. In the Eastern Conference finals, it appeared that the Canadiens had finally run out of gas, and the Flyers knocked the Cinderella story out of the running.
So you would think that with backgrounds like these, both teams would come out with guns blazing, ready to to play, as most sportswriters predicted, a tight, solid, close-scoring game of hockey.
About the only thing that most sports forecasters got right was the "close-scoring" part, as the game finished out 6-5 in Chicago's favor.
Although Chicago had finished out their season on Sunday, and the Flyers nailed their berth on Monday, for whatever reason, the first game of the Finals round wasn't slated until Saturday. A touch of rust was evident on both teams, as were high-flying emotions, and game 1 may have been the wildest ride witnessed in SCF history since 1982, the last time that 5 goals were scored in the first period. Coach Quenneville of the Hawks called it "'Shootout at the OK Corral."
But, to be honest, it was the kind of game you might have realistically expected (if not desired to have seen) for these two teams under the circumstances.
The two teams generally play each other only once during the regular season, so to an extent, there had to be a lot of "getting a feel for the other guys" kind of play going on. The two teams are closely matched on lines and talent; there was plenty of speculation about how the big name players/first lines would match up, and how Byfuglien and Pronger would battle it out on the ice. You could see the two shoving at each other in front of the Flyers crease.
Emotions were clearly running high on both sides of the ice, as neither team has been in the Finals for years, and no matter which team wins, they're going to break a huge drought. After Tomas Kopecky scored what turned out to be the GWG at 8:25 in the 3rd period, Flyers captain Mike Richards slammed his stick against his team's own goal, causing it to shatter. Usually it's Burish or Bolland that inspires that kind of anger, not the talented Slovakian.
Both teams had not played a game in five days, and that was obvious in the sloppy play from both teams. The Blackhawks racked up three stupid penalties in the first period, but while the Flyers were able to capitalize on one of those, the Hawks also scored once while they were short-handed as well.
On the other side of the ice, Philadelphia got called for no penalties. The Broad Street Bullies, penalty-free? Say it ain't so. Brent Seabrook got whacked in the face hard enough to draw blood - twice. Those weren't the only blatant penalties the refs missed, either. You want to know how really weird and unbelievable that is? The Flyers became the first team since 1953 to not be called for any penalties in a SCF game. The last time that happened was for the Bruins, against Montreal in game 5 of the 1953 playoffs.
Neither team played great in the first 40 minutes; they seemed determined to make it an offensive battle, not a defensive one. The Flyers peppered Niemi with 17 shots in the first round and scored three times; while the Hawks only had 9 shots on Leighton and scored twice.
There hasn't been a 5-goal first period in the Stanley Cup Finals since 1982 (Islanders vs. Canucks).
In the second period, this flipped, with the Hawks racking up 15 SOGs with three goals, and the Flyers getting 9 SOGs and two goals. When the Blackhawks took their 5-4 lead, the Flyers' coach pulled Michael Leighton at 15:18 and put Brian Boucher in the pipes. Boucher, you recall, took two sprained knees just 2-1/2 weeks ago. The Flyers have been playing musical chairs in their crease all season, but it was astounding that Boucher would be put in the game last night. Now the question is who will start for Philly in game 2? If it's Leighton, will he be affected by being pulled in game 1? If it's Boucher, is he healthy enough to play the kind of game that the Final round demands?
Although the Flyers scored once more against Chicago to make it 5-5, after that goal, Niemi did what he does best - buckle down and slam the door shut. During the third, Niemi lost his helmet not just once but twice, but never lost his head as he kept the Flyers scoreless in the the period. After taking a puck to his helmet, his strap apparently came loose or broke; after the helmet fell off the second time, he briefly donned his older, gamer-decorated helmet while his Hawks-artwork helm was fixed.
In fact, the third period was markedly different than the first two, with the two teams having nearly even SOGs (8 and 6), but the Blackhawks playing the kind of game that we're accustomed to seeing - and the reason that the Hawks have consistently out-scored their opponents during the third period throughout these playoffs.
All over the ice, for both teams, game 1 was a mess, there is no doubts about it. The defense on both sides was wide-open. As a result, both teams had the other goalie's numbers, and made the most of whatever chances they got. While there was some post-game talk about bad ice, more should be said about bad plays.
We haven't seen the Blackhawks play quite so bad in a while. The Flyers were a mess, too; let's give a shake of the head towards both teams. I would expect both teams to watch a lot of game tape from last night's game, re-find their focus, and come out on Monday night for a hardcore hockey game.
So imagine what these games are going to look like when the Blackhawks actually show up and play the way the hockey world knows that they're capable of doing.
A few other random observations about game 1:
- The top lines for both Chicago and Philadelphia disappeared - or maybe they cancelled each other out. In fact, most of the top-line players came away with negative numbers after this game. The second, third, and fourth line players were the heavy scorers.
- Remember the game earlier in the playoffs where the wrong Blackhawk got sent to the penalty box? It happened again last night, when Brian Campbell got sent to the box on what should've been Niklas Hjalmarsson's high sticking. Seriously, refs, get glasses already; you're ON the ice and missing blatant penalties right in front of your face, and getting things wrong. Or just get new refs. Either way. Like I said in an earlier article, if the Blackhawks manage to do what we'd all like them to do, it will be despite the officiating, which has gone heavily against them throughout the playoffs.
- Blair Betts of the Flyers scored for the first time in 29 games (including regular season).
- Dustin Byfuglien of the Blackhawks had 10 hits. The next most hits any player had was Darroll Powe of the Flyers, with 4.
- The 11 goals scored last night was the most in a Stanley Cup Final game since 1992.
- Jonathan Toews was a perfect 12-0 in the faceoff circle in the first period, and 18-24 overall. He finished the game -3, but still leads players in the playoffs for points.
In all, last night's game was unlike anything seen in the Finals in quite some time, and both teams will be hoping to not have a repeat performance this series.
The puck next drops 7pm CT on Memorial Day at the United Center in Chicago.