The Flyers magical run in the Stanley Cup playoffs finally came to an end last night in game 6 of the finals. After coming back yet again to push the game into overtime, the Flyers just simply did not have enough in them for another comeback. A few minutes into the extra frame, Patrick Kane beat Michael Leighton five hole (yet again) to clinch the cup for the Blackhawks. Overall though the series was a great one, and it was great for hockey. Both teams did a great job and have much to build on in the future.
At the beginning of these Stanley Cup Finals I pontificated that this series would be a good matchup for the NHL because it brought together two of the bigger hockey markets in the U.S. that are not considered to be real hockey hotbeds. I thought I was onto something, but I didn't think it would be this good. Game 6 drew 5.8 million viewers last night, the highest ratings that a hockey game has gotten in over 35 years, and not too far off of the 6.5 or so rating that game 3 of the NBA Finals garnered. THAT puts lead in my pencil. I am glad to see that hockey is coming back to the mainstream, and would not be surprised to see a bigger TV station than Versus or NBC's limited plan make an investment in a national contract with the NHL.
Part of the reason I think this series had such good ratings was because of how even a matchup it was, and how exciting the games were. All of the games were close, and high scoring. This is what people like to see. Moreover, it seemed like the two teams were mirror images of each other. Whether it be Briere and Kane, Leino and Hossa, Byfuglien and Pronger, Richards and Toews, or Madden and Hartnell, it seemed that each player had a doppleganger in terms of skill and role on the other team. The difference ultimately was in the goaltending.
I don't want to sound unappreciative of what Michael Leighton did throughout the playoffs, because he no doubt got the Flyers to the finals, but his hot streak came to an abrupt end against the 'Hawks. Meanwhile, Antti Niemi played like an absolute Stanley Cup champion. It seemed that on every Blackhawks breakaway or shot from the point a goal was scored, while every Flyers breakaway or slapshot was turned aside. Niemi was no doubt the difference maker in an evenly matched Stanley Cup finals. Leighton getting beaten five hole was a recurring theme in this series and, poetically, was how the game winning goal was scored. Something had to give, and it was Leighton. It did not take away from what was a fantastic series though.
Going forward, the Blackhawks have a very solid nucleus with which they can compete for many years. Kane (side note: the year Kane was drafted #1 overall, the Flyers had the worst record in hockey by far. They lost the lottery and ended up picking James Van Riemsdyk #2 overall. Ain't that 'bout a bitch?) and Toews will no doubt rival Crosby and Malkin in the near future as the best hockey tandem. Antti Niemi will be solid in goal, and the Blackhawks will be back to the finals very soon I believe. As for the Flyers, it appears that they finally have figured out how to play as a team. Look for them to not quite go through as circuitous a path to the playoffs next year. Also, look for them to go deep into the playoffs once again. I think the one thing holding the Flyers back is their goaltending. Goaltending has always been the bane of the Flyers existence. They have pretty much been in the playoffs perennially for the last 20 years or so, but they have never had a great goaltender. Whether it be Ron Hextall, John Vanbiesbrouck, Brian Boucher, Roman Cechmanek, Robert Esche, Garth Snow, Sean Burke, Marty Biron, Antero Nittymaki, or Jeff Hackett, nobody has had the star power to bring home the cup. Goalies like Leighton have been hot for a while, just like Boucher 10 years ago, but end up fading before too long. The Flyers need to make a serious investment in a star caliber goalie in the offseason. Do that, and they could be the team hoisting the cup next year instead of watching.
The Flyers did not win the cup, but I think that their story throughout the course of the season was a great one and I am very proud of how they played. Sure they may not have won it all, but at least they made every Chicago fan go "Huh?" before they realized that they had won the cup. Now I can get back to focusing on how pathetic and sad the Phillies are right now.