For most of the first four games – two of which, by the way, Chicago actually won – hockey fans kept asking: “What happened to the Blackhawks?” After all, this is the club who scratched and clawed through the trapping Predators, trampled the seemingly imposing Vancouver Canucks and then eked out win after win against the deep, talented San Jose Sharks.
Yet once the Cup finals began, it seemed like that combination of rugged play and skill vanished. Well, at least until Game 5, when the team stormed out of the gate and dominated the Philadelphia Flyers. Michael Leighton didn’t even make it past the first period.
Before this series, nine of the team’s 12 playoff wins were by two goals or more. The Blackhawks proved they could win tight, close games against the Sharks, but there’s no doubt that this offensively deep squad prefers a wide-open game. In some ways, they remind me of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns; even if you’re (sort of) sticking with them in a shootout, you’re still playing into their skilled hands. This is not a group you want to “trade blows” with.
Of course, one big difference is that the Blackhawks can play tough. One of the team’s truest catalysts is Dustin Byfuglien, a hit-or-miss power forward who hit everything – from humans to the twine – in a big way tonight. Just compare Buffy’s stats with his consistent tormentor, Chris Pronger. While the Flyers defenseman had a career worst -5 rating in this game, Byfuglien scored two goals, two assists and registered a staggering nine hits. It’s no wonder that Byfuglien was named the game’s first star.
That’s not the only area where the Blackhawks played “their” game, though. Considering the troubles they’ve been having, it was great for them to see Patrick Kane score a goal and add an assist while Jonathan Toews had a helper too. But what really screams “Blackhawks hockey” is just how many players were involved in the scoring. By my count, 11 out of 18 skaters registered at least one point and six different players generated the team’s seven goals. That’s the kind of depth and variety you expect from this loaded group.
Does this mean that Chicago should be completely pleased? No, there were some botched defensive assignments and the Blackhawks must be wary of allowing the Flyers back into games. After building a three goal lead, James van Riemsdyk pulled the Flyers within two during the third period and Chicago fans had to be at least a little bit nervous. It didn’t get much closer than that, but one missing element to their normally dominant game was tight defense (after all, they do employ Norris Trophy candidate Duncan Keith).
The Blackhawks seduced the Flyers into playing their brand of hockey tonight. Chicago dominated the flow, played physical hockey and flat-out bombarded their opponents for the first time in this series. While naysayers will point out that the team put together a flawed effort, mistakes happen at a break-neck speed. That’s a small price to pay in order to play the wide-open style that no other team in hockey – aside from maybe the Washington Capitals – masters quite like Chicago.
Let’s not assume that this one is over, though. Keep in mind that the last time Chris Pronger and Michael Leighton had awful games, the Flyers followed that up by taking two in a row to rout the Montreal Canadiens.
Once the Cup is raised and the champagne is flowing, it might just come down to which team plays “their” game in the final two contests.