By Tim Brennan
Who would have thought that the Philadelphia Flyers were going to meet up with the Chicago Blackhawks for the Stanley Cup Finals? The Blackhawks are coming off an incredible four game series sweep of the San Jose Sharks en route to the Finals and weren't slowed down by Nashville or Vancouver in the two rounds prior to the Conference Finals. Philadelphia meanwhile took care of business by dispatching Montreal in five after dismantling rival New Jersey in the quarterfinals and coming back from a 3-0 deficit against Boston to take the series in 7. So in essence this year's Stanley Cup Finals is interesting to say the least.
Matchups are always an important component to a game or series and there is no shortage of that here. The unlikely goaltending duel of Michael Leighton and Antti Niemi is the most surprising and probably the most important. Leighton posted four shutouts and was a godsend after Brian Boucher went down with a knee injury halfway through their series against the Bruins. Niemi has been just as spectacular, coming up with momentum changing saves at key times during games and has shown that he is the goalie that Chicago wants to depend on, and not Cristobal Huet.
Another matchup to keep an eye on throughout this series is the battle between Chris Pronger and Dustin Byfuglien. Each man possesses strength beyond belief and since Byfuglien's main objective is to crash the net and screen the opposing netminder, it's a guarantee that he will run into Pronger frequently. Not only that but Chicago's checking line consisting of Dave Bolland, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kopecky will look to shut down the Flyers' top line of Mike Richards, Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter.
Now after having said all of that, let's see how Game 1 came to such a strange outcome.
Each team came out with a lot of intensity and determination to gain the lead first and gain momentum for the rest of the game. Surprisingly Philadelphia got that lead from Ville Leino, who tallied 6:38 into the contest. The scoring wasn't done for the period as Troy Brouwer answered back only a minute after Leino's goal. Then Dave Bolland scored a shorthanded goal off a breakaway at 11:50 of the first. Scot Hartnell countered back on the powerplay at 16:37, with Danny Briere and Chris Pronger adding their second assists of the evening. Not to be outdone, Briere would score just before the buzzer sounded for the first period, giving Philadelphia a 3-2 lead going into period number 2.
Former Flyer Patrick Sharp got on the board early for Chicago in the 2nd period, blasting a high rising shot over the glove of Michael Leighton. Then finally there was some time during the period when no goals were scored up until Blair Betts' slapshot made it past Niemi 7 minutes in. Then another change in score occurred just 2 minutes after the Betts goal as Kris Versteeg scored to tie things up. Chicago would finally muster a lead as Troy Brouwer scored late in the period, which would send Leighton to the bench. The puck stopping machine that is Michael Leighton allowed 5 goals on 20 shots, which is uncharacteristic of the goaltender in these playoffs. The change in goaltenders sparked Philadelphia as Arron Asham slapped one past Niemi with a little over a minute remaining in the second. After two periods, the score was deadlocked at 5 apiece.
In the third, both teams buckled down defensively and picked up the physicality. Each team neutralized each other in the offensive zones until Tomas Kopecky added to the bizarre night. A strong forecheck by the Bolland line created an opportunity for Kopecky and he didn't miss, putting it past Boucher and giving Chicago a 6-5 lead. The Flyers frantically battled back in the final half of the period but couldn't tally in time to tie the game up one more time. Chicago drew first blood by winning Game 1 and giving themselves an advantage for Game 2.
This strange night can be summed up with a few notes of importance. The top forwards from both teams; for Chicago: Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Dustin Byfuglien and Philadelphia: Mike Richards, Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter; went the entire game without getting on the scoresheet and combined for a minus 16. The game winning goal came from Tomas Kopecky, who was only in the lineup because Andrew Ladd suffered a shoulder injury that will keep him out of this series. Prior to this game, Kopecky was a healthy scratch for five games. Finally, Chicago didn't get a single powerplay all night but was shorthanded on four occasions, which is rare in this post season.