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2010 Stanley Cup Finals: Don't forget about Matt Carle

Carle.jpgMuch of the focus in this series has been the play of Chris Pronger,
the mythical veteran on the Flyers that everyone gravitates to in order
to get his take on the team, the series and the games. He plays nearly
30 minutes every game and at times he’s out on the ice for an
extraordinary amount of time. He’s been instrumental in shutting down
Dustin Byfuglien, and the top line of the Chicago Blackhawks been
frankly horrible against the Flyers.

Yet there is one player who deserves much more attention than he’s
receiving, and I’m sure he’d rather it stay that way.

Matt Carle is spending almost as much time on the ice as Pronger, as
the two have developed into one of the most consistent and dominant
defensive pairing in the postseason. There’s no doubt that Carle has
played a major role in his team’s success, and on Friday night was in
the right place at the right time when he found the puck on his stick
down low for a big goal late in the first period.

Coach Peter Laviolette says that Carle is a quiet, unassuming player
who just does his job exactly the way is should be done.

“I’ve said this all year, Matt has to play against the same players
that Chris is playing against, and they’re usually pretty good players,”
said Laviolette yesterday after the team arrived in Chicago.

“For somebody that doesn’t have the same stature and size as Chris on
the ice, he’s a smaller player, he defends very well. He uses his —
he positions himself well in the defensive zone. He never really puts
himself in a bad position. He makes it really good first pass. He gets
himself out of trouble with his skating. They’ve been a really good
pair the entire year.”

What’s more impressive is that Carle is able to be just as effective
as Pronger without resorting to the same methods, the same intimidation
factors that Pronger is infamous for. You never expect Carle to take a
dumb penalty for cross checking or retaliation, and Pronger says that
sometimes Carle is overlooked for just how good he is defensively.

“[Carle is a] very steadying influence on the ice,” said Pronger.
“Makes a great first pass. Reads a play very well. And is a solid
defender. I think a lot of times guys that can make plays and
see the ice as well as he does and jumps in the attack, their defensive
play gets overlooked a lot. He’s obviously playing with me matched up
against the top line. Does a great job.”

Believe it or not but
Pronger is very modest when it comes to his role in shutting down the
Hawks, stating time and again he’s just doing his job. But ask him about
Carle and he’s forthcoming, very willing to heap praise upon his young
linemate.

Carle has bounced around a bit in the NHL before
landing with the Flyers last season, but it’s a playoff performance like
this one that truly defines a career. Pronger may be getting all the
attention but the ones who really watch the game, the ones that really
matter — they know just how good he’s been.

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    2010 Stanley Cup Finals, Game 4: Ville Leino continues to roll

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    Leino.jpgFor some players, it just takes a change of scenery to really unleash
    the talent everyone expected them to have. Others, it’s increased
    minutes or a different role on the team. For some, it’s both.

    For Ville Leino, it has been the postseason.

    Traded from the Red Wings to the Flyers in the middle of the season,
    Leino scored just two goals in 13 games before the postseason started.
    He showed flashes at times for the Flyers, but I doubt that anyone
    realized just how good he would be for this team when they needed every
    player at their best.

    With his seventh goal of the playoffs last night — which turned out
    to be the game-winning goal — Leino passed Bryan Propp to break the
    franchise record for points by a rookie in the playoffs. Leino has 16
    points in 17 games, and has become somewhat of a revelation in
    Philadelphia.

    After scoring his goal, one that came off a great effort and a lucky
    bounce, the home Flyers crowd stood and roared their appreciation for a
    player that was just an afterthought in a mid-season trade. What was great to see was how Leino immediately deflected questions about the record and just wanted to talk about his team’s win.

    “It was a special moment,” he said with a grin. “It was a fun game. It was a nice little
    moment. I will remember it always. Good win there too. So it was a
    great game.”

    Leino didn’t
    just arrive in Philly and set the town on fire, as the Flyers struggled
    to find a role for him on the team. For Leino, it was certainly a low
    point in his career.

    “My confidence was at an all-time low there for a while,” Leino said.
    “It was tough when I got here. I didn’t get a chance right away. I
    played a few games, and after that I didn’t play again. It was just
    tough. Obviously, you go through emotions there and think maybe you
    won’t ever get a chance.”

    According to the NHL, Leino is
    technically considered a rookie. Yet even if he wasn’t, if he was just a
    castoff from the Red Wings as he struggled at 26 years old to find his
    place in the NHL, his resurgence in the postseason would still be just
    as tremendous.

    He was knocked around a bit by Brian Campbell in
    the game and had to leave, and immediately Flyers fans were worried
    about their team’s chances. Leino has become a vital part of this Flyers
    team and his confidence soars with each game. You can see it in his
    eyes; this is a man that is having the time of his life out on the ice.
    That’s not what was happening just a few months ago.

    It’s amazing
    what happens when your team is confident in you. Right now, that
    confidence is at an all-time high for Ville Leino.

    Will Quenneville stick with his line changes?

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    I can understand Joel Quenneville’s stubbornness.

    After all, they’ve been so successful all season and for the entire
    run of the playoffs and there’s no way that Patrick Kane and Jonathan
    Toews would continue to struggle together. Yet for the first three
    games, the top line of Kane, Toews and Byfuglien weren’t just
    ineffective — they were downright bad.

    The trend continued in Game 4, and only when the Blackhawks were down
    4-1 did Quenneville start to split the two up. He didn’t stick with one
    set combination, opting instead to mix and match his two best players
    with a number of other linemates as he searched for some way for the
    Blackhawks to get their mojo back.

    Of course, Quenneville wasn’t very revealing about his thought
    process behind the changes in the third period.

    “Sometimes you try to mix it up a little bit, whether it’s a matchup
    or get some energy going in the lines,” Quenneville said right before
    leaving the podium. “We didn’t like some things. Sometimes you try
    some things. I thought the energy came.”

    Quenneville started off
    by taking Dustin Byfuglien of the top line with Toews and Kane and
    placing him on a bigger line with Andrew Ladd. Once the Hawks started to
    roll in the third period, and once they were able to put together three
    effective lines, then the Flyers started to have all sorts of issues
    with the Hawks’ attack.

    Until the third period, the Blackhawks had
    become a very stale offensive team. Sure, there were goals being scored
    but this was far from the Chicago team we thought we knew. A lot of the
    credit has to go to the Flyers, who have done a tremendous job of
    shutting down the top line of the Blackhawks all series long.

    “[Carle
    and Pronger] have done a tremendous job, not just tonight and not just
    this series but throughout the playoffs,” Danny Briere said after the
    game when asked about the Flyers defensemen. “Every team we’ve played
    they’ve seemed to shut down their top guys. But we can’t forget that
    Chicago also has a lot of firepower.”

    Marian Hossa and Patrick
    Sharp were easily the best forwards on the ice for the Blackhawks
    tonight, and Quenneville was able to start getting them space as well
    when he changed the lines up and spread out the attack a bit. With
    Pronger and Matt Carle doing such a good job of shutting down Toews, the
    Flyers were also able to take adavantage of their shortcomings on
    defense.

    It’s incredibly odd to keep writing this, but the player
    that was so good for the Hawks in the first three rounds and the player
    many considered the favorite for the Conn Smythe has struggled mightily
    against the Flyers. Kane and Toews were a combined minus-6 last night,
    and it wasn’t until Quenneville finally broke them up that we started to
    see some effectiveness from the two.

    So the question is, will we
    see these changes continue? After the game Danny Briere and Simon Gagne
    both acknowledged that the Flyers had trouble adjusting to the changes
    the Blackhawks had made in the third period. Obviously, Quenneville
    isn’t going to do the exact same thing that worked at the end but you
    have to think that Toews and Kane need to continue to be split up going
    forward.

    With Chicago headed back home, and knowing the history of
    this team, then I would venture we’ll see the two right back together
    to start Game 5. However, there’s a good chance that if they start to
    struggle again and the Hawks have issue rolling out a consistent
    three-line attack, that Quenneville won’t hesitate to move them around
    again. Of course, it’s much easier to work on those changes in practice
    than it is to change on the fly in the middle of a game.

    If
    Quenneville is smart, if he truly is the coach to lead the Blackhawks to
    the Stanley Cup, then he won’t shy away from the changes that need to
    be made and proved effective in Game 4.

    2010 Stanley Cup Finals, Game 4: Michael Leighton growing more confident

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    Leighton4.jpgI can forgive him the two goals in the third period. One came on a
    dastardly tip-in on a 5-on-3 and the other was a fluky, bouncing goal
    that careened off two players and over his pad. Until that point in the
    game, and even after the Chicago Blackhawks had pulled within 4-3 late in
    the third, I felt that Michael Leighton was having his best game of the
    series.

    There were still some iffy moments, with pucks going off the crossbar
    and a couple of scary moments off the rush, but he was confident in the
    net and making several big saves each time the Blackhawks threatened to
    seize the momentum in the game.

    He was especially good in the second period, when the Flyers sat back
    a little and were outplayed by stretched by Chicago, as he made a
    number of big saves to keep his team ahead by two goals. Obviously, that
    lead would fall apart in the latter stages of the game but a allowing
    two goals in the second period would have been much more devastating.

    “I actually felt my best today, too,” Leighton said after the win. “I
    was comfortable. I wasn’t nervous. I just — I had confidence in our
    team that we would play well. And in the first period I felt I
    made a couple of saves that really got me into the game and kept our
    team in. And we scored a goal early and kind of fed off that.”

    Leighton has a had a bit of a tougher series against Chicago than
    when he basically rolled through the Montreal Canadiens, something that
    was completely expected. The Hawks are one of the deepest offensive
    teams in the NHL, and they have the ability to roll line after line
    against you with neverending pressure.

    The Flyers have done a tremendous job of keeping the Hawks to the
    perimeter, not allowing Chicago to get any interior positioning and to
    keep the shots coming from the outside. Leighton says that’s a big
    reason he has been so successful this series against a team like the
    Hawks.

    “We knew they were going to come out and put pucks on the net,”
    Leighton said when asked about Chicago’s attack. “That was kind of our
    thing. Lavi said don’t let pucks get to the net. Those little wrist
    shots from the point, try to step in front of the guys and knock those
    down. We did a great job. They did let something get through. Without
    screens it was pretty easy some of them.”

    The Blackhawks have struggled with getting traffic in front of
    Leighton, as Dustin Byfuglien has been completely rendered
    inconsequential by Chris Pronger and company. The Hawks have tried a
    number of other combinations to try and make Leighton uncomfortable in
    net, but so far he’s been able to see pretty much every shot that comes
    his way.

    Headed back to Chicago, the Blackhawks will once again be looking to
    use their matchups to their advantage and to get back to what was so
    successful in Games 1 and 2. Leighton contends that it wasn’t so much
    what the Hawks were doing in Game 1 that was frustrating him, but
    perhaps a bit of nerves about being in the finals. Still, he says he
    hasn’t changed anything as the series has progressed.

    “I’m playing the same way. I know they’re a good offensive team.
    They’re going to get chances. Game 1, I felt okay.

    “But I wasn’t making the big saves and keeping our team into it. So
    right from that game, I just said I have to make a few of those saves,
    and we would have won Game 1 if I would have made two or three really
    good stops. Just trying not to let in a bad goal. You play solid and
    make the odd great save. Tonight it worked out.”

    While there were the two goals allowed in the third period, it’s
    tough to say that Leighton allowed a “bad goal”. Those goals plagued him
    in Chicago, and I’m sure that Ben Eager’s game-winning goal in Game 2
    is haunting him. Still, each game he’s grown more and more comfortable
    and has settled down in net for the Flyers.

    Michael Leighton is two games away from being perhaps the most
    improbable Stanley Cup winning goaltender in recent history. He may not
    be the flashiest, but he’s done a hell of a job against one of the best
    offensive teams the NHL has had in a long time. But for that to
    continue, the Flyers will have to do something they haven’t done yet in
    this series; win in Chicago.

    “We’re going back to Chicago,” Leighton said. “We have to win a
    game there eventually.”

    “So this is going to be the most important
    game for us. Tonight was obviously a big win for us. We have to go
    into Chicago and give the same effort and hopefully get the same
    results.”

    2010 Stanley Cup Finals, Game 4: Mike Richards finally steps up

    Richards2.jpgPhiladelphia Flyers 5, Chicago Blackhawks 3

    Series tied 2-2

    Despite how the rest of the team has been playing, if the
    Philadelphia Flyers had any hope of tying this series and eventually
    going on to win the Stanley Cup, then they would need their captain to
    step up and raise the level of his game.

    All series long Mike Richards has struggled, whether it’s because of
    the Chicago defense or the health of his linemates or just the ebb and
    flow of the post, there’s been no doubt that this team needed him to be
    better. Coach Peter Laviolette said before the game that he felt that
    Richards and the line with Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne was ready to
    break out, and while they had just two goals between the three — with
    one being an empty-netter — yet Richards set the tone early for his
    team and never backed off.

    After the game, the rest of the team acknowledged just how big of
    difference he made tonight.

    “[Richards] always finds a way to step up when it’s time,” said
    Claude Giroux. “Obviously, his goal was huge. He just always finds a
    way to get that big goal for us.”

    That big goal came off an incredible individual effort by Mike
    Richards on the power play, who chased down the puck along the boards.
    He stole the puck from an unsuspecting Niklas Hjalmarsson and a quick
    backhand surprised Antti Niemi. It opened the scoring and set the tone
    for what would be a great first period by the Flyers.

    It wasn’t just that goal though, as Richards and his line
    continuously put the pressure on the Hawks. In the past, the Hawks had
    been able to easily shut down the top line yet was burned by the second
    and third lines of the Flyers. Tonight, with Richards playing so well,
    it opened up the game for the Flyers in all areas as they completely
    controlled the flow and the energy for the first two periods.

    Mike Richards says the key for him was easy: keep it simple.

    “I think sometimes when you try to do too much, you almost go the
    opposite way and not do enough,” the Flyers captain said after the game.

    “Just keep it simple, try to relax, play hockey, and at the end of
    the day, just don’t try to do too much with the puck, or don’t try to do
    too much without the puck. Then you just dig yourself in the corners.”

    Richards provided the leadership on the ice tonight that we’ve been
    waiting for all series long, as the rest of the team has made up for the
    top line’s shortcomings. It’s not just about scoring goals, and in the
    first three games Mike Richards was nearly invisible. Not so tonight, as
    he stood out on every single shift. It seemed as if the Hawks just
    weren’t ready for his energy and the pressure he was putting on their
    defense.

    Of course, it wouldn’t be a Blackhawks and Flyers game if one team
    didn’t come roaring back in the third period. This time around, it was
    the Hawks who had the big third period, getting within 4-3 with two late
    goals. It seems in this series that holding onto a lead for any amount
    of time is nearly impossible to do, and Richards says that turnovers
    certainly don’t help when you’re playing a team like the Hawks.

    “We know they’re great on transition,” Richards said. “I mean, to
    lead to your next question, that’s when we kind of caused some problems
    for ourselves, was turning the puck over.”

    “We got the puck in
    deep. When we hit their defense, we had success. When we didn’t do
    that, they came back fast the other way. Not the greatest way that we
    wanted to finish the game. But I think we have confidence in ourselves
    with a one-goal lead. Closed it out when we needed to.”