The very long shot

The fact that the Philadelphia Flyers are still standing, having conquered injuries, a coaching change and running through goaltenders like the ‘Sex and the City’ girls run through shoes is quite the story.

Not too shabby for a club that ‘technically’ finished the season at the perfectly mediocre .500 mark. (41 wins, 41 losses)  

They squeaked into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season by way of a shootout. They drew a first round opponent in New Jersey that they had success against all season long. Then winning four games in a row after the Bruins, their second round opponent, lost two of its top six forwards over the first three games of the series. And by the time the Eastern Conference Finals started, someone had informed Jaroslav Halak that he was actually human.

Not to discount winning the 12 games they won to be here, but the Flyers road to Lord Stanley’s Cup went from Zach Parise and Patrice Bergeron, to the vastly overpaid Scott Gomez and Marc-Andre Bergeron, not exactly a murders row of talent.  

It wasn’t as easy as following the yellow brick road, but Philadelphia has made punch out of the fruit basket the Eastern Conference playoffs handed them. And that’s what leaves us with the City of Brotherly Love in an underdog role when the Stanley Cup Final opens on Saturday, as if the Broad Street Bullies and that Rocky statue outside the old Spectrum would have it any other way.

“We’re fully confident,” Mike Richards said after his team advanced to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1997. “I don’t want to say destined or anything, but we have a great team. We feel we have a good chance, obviously; and we’re going to lay it all out there.”

Sure, the Flyers have a chance of winning this series. It just happens to be the same chance Daniel Carcillo has of winning the Lady Byng, or Andy Reid has of going through an entire season without being fired 4,203 times by WIP’s callers.

Chris Pronger is not only one of the game’s most dominant defenders, but one of its most feared players. Daniel Briere may finally live up to that massive contract he signed back in 2007, not statistically, but by bringing Philadelphia its first Cup in three decades.  Simon Gagne, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter are all nice players, talented hard working guys who have learned to play within Peter Laviolette’s system.

Still, it wasn’t until last week where we could put the 2009-10 Flyers in the same conversation as the Chicago Blackhawks. Now we’ll see how long they manage to stay on the same ice surface together.

Their one meeting this season came back in March, a game the Flyers won 3-2 when Scott Hartnell and Chris Pronger scored goals in the final 2:06 on home ice at the Wachovia Center. It was a game where Chicago started Cristobal Huet, not the white hot Antti Niemi and outshot Philadelphia 41-34. It also marked the low point in a post-Olympic stretch that saw the Blackhawks lose eight of 13 games.

“It might have been the most frustrating loss all year long,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said earlier this week. “Giving up a lead late and giving up the goal to beat us without getting to overtime was a tough pill to swallow at that time.”

Four more wins like that and the Flyers will go from a team that should be happy to be here to a true team of destiny.

This is ultimately a numbers game. The Blackhawks are too deep and too talented to lose this series. They’ll beat you with wave upon wave of offensive firepower and if it isn’t Patrick Kane or Jonathan Toews, it’s Dave Bolland, Andrew Ladd, John Madden or Kris Versteeg.

And at some point Marian Hossa is going to get his ring and maybe a goal or two (He’s got two in 16 postseason games). Hossa’s not only running out of opportunities, but he’s running out of teams, just like Arlen Spector.

Toews, the pre-series favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, comes into the final on a 13-game point streak, the longest such streak since Eric Staal notched a point in 15 straight games back in 2006. And while this might be the first taste of the Stanley Cup Final for both him and Kane (seven goals, 13 assists), both found success during February’s Olympics in Vancouver.

“We know we can still be better,” Toews said. “We’re going to keep pushing ourselves. This is a great opportunity, a great chance. You know nothing’s holding us back. We’re going to go right after it and enjoy doing it as a team.”

The men who will be expected to hold them back, Philadelphia’s top two defensive parings can boast having the likes of Pronger, Matt Carle, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn, all fantastic defensive players. But this is a series where Chicago’s depth will make the difference, especially if Lukas Krajicek and Ryan Parent, who play about 10 minutes a game, see significant amounts of time.

The Flyers have blocked 288 shots against the weak sisters of the Eastern Conference playoffs, they’ll now deal with a team that can score seemingly at will, a club that is 7-1 on the road, a club that will make you pay for taking a too many men on the ice call, or taking a double minor in the third period of games, as they were able to get away with against Montreal.

We’re not saying the Flyers don’t have a chance, but they must play the perfect series to win. Pronger must be the best player on the ice for either side, Laviolette must outcoach Quenneville and not only will Philadelphia have to win one of the first two games on the road, but must maintain their discipline over the course of seven games.

“We have a group of guys in that room that no matter what happens, they never give up,” Carter said. “I think we’ve seen that come to the forefront in these playoffs here. It’s a pretty amazing thing to be a part of.”

And it would be even more amazing if they found some way to sneak four more wins out of it.

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