by Kevin Franklin
And so it begins…
The Philadelphia Flyers have vanquished the Montreal Canadiens, four games to one. All talk of another Canadiens comeback have been silenced. It was mojo versus mojo and one of them had to say “uncle” and bring their fan base to a brick wall splatter. Fortunately for Flyers fans, the Eastern Conference Championship series was a mere speed bump on the road to the Stanley Cup Finals. Canadiens fans, with their legacy of Morenz, Harvey, Plante, the Richard brothers, Beliveau, Cournoyer, LaFleur, Dryden, Savard, Shutt, LaPointe, Robinson, Roy…well, you get the picture, will have a long, empty Summer to let the scars scab over, knowing how improbable their run was. It is doubtful, the way their team is constructed today, if they will get this far next year. Even diehard Habs fans would agree. They were all in at the playoff poker table and nothing but winning the Cup would soothe the hearts and minds of our northern Francophone neighbors.
But enough about them.
We came not to praise Montreal, but bury them. And bury them we did. After the deceptively easy elimination of the Devils in round one and the Wallenda-like tension of the Boston series, we might look back on this latest set of games as somewhere in between. It was much easier than hamstringing the Bruins yet more difficult than kicking New Jersey out of the party. And now here we are, no more than four more wins to the finish line and the ultimate prize.
To the misinformed hockey fan, the Flyers are like Roger Thornhill, Cary Grant’s character in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Bumbling, stumbling and smooth-talking their way through devilish plots, bruising henchman and a foreign honcho to get the girl. A closer look shows a team that was built for the playoffs and is playing to their expected abilities. The Flyers underachieved during the regular season and you would be hard-pressed to find a person in their locker room who would dispute that fact. Just because they arrived at the interview with a stained tie doesn’t mean they weren’t the best team for the job. Their competition? The well-tailored, perfectly-coiffed Chicago Blackhawks.
I have to admit, if the Flyers had bowed out earlier in the playoffs, I would have been rooting for Chicago to win it all. Not so much for their current roster of players, but for the fact I like their heritage, can empathize with their long-suffering fans and – let’s be honest here – they do have the coolest sweaters in the NHL. I grew up enjoying watching Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito and Bill White. I loved the play of Ivan Boldirev, Jim Pappin and Dale Tallon. I also loved seeing tough guy, Keith Magnuson, get rag-dolled with alarming regularity by Dave Schultz every time the Flyers and Blackhawks linked up. Chicago was always the team that was good enough – yet not QUITE good enough – to win the Stanley Cup up through the mid-1990s, and that’s a refrain we Flyers fans have known all too well since the mid-1970s. For every Mark Howe, Brian Propp, Dave Poulin, Eric Lindros and Ron Hextall, they have had a Bob Murray, Denis Savard, Steve Larmer, Jeremy Roenick and Ed Belfour.
It is said familiarity breeds contempt. Chicago and Philadelphia share more in common than either city would care to admit. Blue collar, working class fans? Check. Old, strong ethnic neighborhoods in a harsh, frigid climate? Check. A general hatred of anything and everything New York? Double check. In Chicago, there is only one way to make a pizza and you can only get it in the Windy City; in Philly, there is only one cheesesteak and you can only get it in the City of Brotherly Love. There’s no hot dog like a Chicago Dog and no pretzel like a Philly hot pretzel. They have Da Bears and we have the Iggles. And in the battle of the bulge and the booze, both cities have reputations for overhangs and hangovers.
Come Saturday, none of that will matter. The Stanley Cup Finals are blood in and blood out. When all is said and done, the Blackhawks will have played the second most games in the NHL this season, with the Flyers having played the most. It’s exhausting enough for us fans and triply so for the athletes. You can expect about 90% of the so-called experts to pick the Blackhawks to win the series in less than seven games. Their reasoning is Chicago’s speed, depth and size. Color me confused as the Flyers boast the same qualities themselves. Chicago has one or two top-end scorers, scoring depth and a good checking line. So do the Flyers. Chicago has a very good defense that can also add a lot of offense. So do the Flyers. Chicago has a relatively inexperienced goaltender playing very well. So do the Flyers. Chicago has a masterful coach in Joel Quenneville. The Flyers have their own in Peter Laviolette. Philly has not seen anyone like Dustin Byfuglien, nor have the Blackhawks seen anyone like Claude Giroux. Jonathan Toews is like their Ryne Sandberg and Mike Richards is our Chase Utley, hard working, no-nonsense winners at key positions.
There are so many ways to spin this series. Valid arguments can be made either way. Will it be the top players making the difference? Will it be the role players? Will it be the defense? Will it be the goaltending? Will it be the coaching? Fans from both sides will complain about calls and non-calls. Excuses will be ready-made. We, as Philly fans, seem to be mired in a stretch of time which regards our sports conferences as the weaker sisters: in head-to-head competition, the AFC is better than the NFC, the AL is better than the NL, the Western Conferences in basketball and hockey are better than the Eastern Conferences. It is inevitable that the Flyers will be the underdogs. Of course they are. In 1974, the Boston Bruins were vastly favored over the Flyers in the Cup Finals and we know how that turned out. More recently, the Flyers were considered the favorite to beat the Detroit Redwings. Unfortunately, we all know how that turned out, too. Does it matter? Do you think the Canadiens cared how much the Capitals and Penguins were favored?
The NHL is hoping for a seven game series. I’m not. I want it to be over in four games with another parade down Broad Street. I realize that has little chance of happening in such a convenient way. But, I am proud of this team. Proud but not satisfied. When you get to third base, you want to score no matter how unlikely it was you even got a chance to bat. Both clubs have many thousands of fans who have never experienced an NHL championship and thirst for a drink from Lord Stanley’s Cup. For us older fans, we have the memories of 1974 and 1975, two triumphs we live in our memories. Two parades down Broad Street. Two trophies for the mantelpiece.
One city, two cups. And counting…
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