Wrapping Our Loser Penguin Heads Around The Hawks/Flyers Cup Final

My reactions to the Stanley Cup Final, in no particular order:

— Numerous friends of mine have already commented something along the lines of “Eff Hossa anyway,” echoing Ron Cook’s pre-Finals column about how choosing between the Flyers and Hossa was a Penguins fan’s “worst nightmare.” Do people really still have a grudge against Hossa? He was a free agent who signed with a team that wasn’t the Penguins, then the Penguins got the ultimate revenge on him (and he managed 0 goals in 7 Cup Final games last year), then he signed with some other team in the Western Conference who the Pens will play once a year. Do we really need to waste energy still being mad at him? There’s plenty of other players out there to hate. How bout this dude? Oh Aaron Johnson of the Oilers, you little S.O.B….

— The Blackhawks again proved, as the Penguins sort of proved last year, just how legitimately different the NHL is nowadays than it was one decade ago. Now, a team can win with scoring depth, puck possession, and skill/effort, whereas for about a decade, the Cup just got tossed to whatever team played the staunchest, stay-at-home holdy defense to protect insurmountable 2-goal leads and drive fan interest southward (meaning, down, not towards the south). Obviously playing good defense is still a priority, but both the Hawks and the Flyers are aggressive, up-tempo teams with a bevy of skilled forwards and puck-moving defensemen; the days of system trumping skill are over, at least until some other coach figures out a loophole.

— Building off the previous point, even though the Flyers’ Cup run included a chokey Devils team, an 8th-seeded Canadiens team, and a team that still unironically employs Mark Recchi, the Flyers are a really, legitimately good club. I predicted in the preseason (literally about my only correct prediction) that they’d struggle early on, fire John Stevens, and get hot at the end of the year in time to be dangerous in the Playoffs. They still have the same roster that us Divisional fans feared before the season; it’s not like their forward depth came totally out of nowhere, plus Claude Giroux re-elevated his game, Danny Briere was shockingly healthy/nonterrible, and Michael Leighton filled in more than admirably in net in the early rounds. As long as they plug in another passable goalie or two, the Flyers should absolutely be a factor in the Eastern Conference again next year, especially if Giroux and James Van Riemsdyk continue developing and Jeff Carter isn’t playing on two robot feet that leak oil fumes and cause him to forget he’s playing playoff NHL hockey, or whatever happened.

— I always feel like face-offs are overrated unless your team gets slaughtered on them for a bunch of games in a row, and in this series, Philly got slaughtered on them a bunch of games in a row. It isn’t one of the Top 20 reasons Chicago won, but it helped.

After the jump, the list of players I was and wasn’t impressed by:

Do I need one of those stupid cutesy Good-and-Bad names for this feature? Like “Hot or Not” or “Cheers and Jeers” or “Goodies and Baddies”? Let’s go with “Goodies and Baddies,” that sounds sufficiently stupid and doesn’t rhyme.

Goodies:

– Patrick Sharp (Consistent threat)
– Claude Giroux (Second straight quality postseason)
– Scott Hartnell (Played like a legit net-front presence with a scoring touch; far overshadowed his occasional “too penalty-prone to be an asset” spells)
– Marian Hossa (Didn’t score a ton but created constant chances)
– Chris Pronger in most of Games 1-4 (Still not mobile and only gonna get older, but was solid in his own zone, was terrific at keeping the puck in on the power play, and consistently made quick, concise breakout passes. In Games 5-6, though, he reverted back to a giant, slow hold-machine)

Baddies:

– Mike Richards (Total Nonfactor)
– Jeff Carter (Total Nonfactor)
– Duncan Keith (Great puck-mover, but kept having defensive lapses, and with an $8 mil contract kicking in next year, he’s got a ways to go to be a “comfortably leave him in for 28 minutes” franchise type)
– Michael Leighton (didn’t have super-high expectations for him, but he let in a bunch of shaky goals after shutting out Montreal three times last series; is Montreal really that bad offensively? Oh, they are? Dang.)

— One final thought: I honestly wasn’t that impressed by either Michael Leighton or Antti Niemi in the Finals. Neither one outright stole a game, or even really caught fire to the point of definitively altering an outcome; Niemi was solid outside of some of the more extreme crazy stretches in Games 1 and 5, and Leighton was alternatively decent and subpar, but the more I watch the NHL nowadays and see Fleury struggle then win a Cup in the same year then struggle again, and ex-Islanders backup Chris Osgood make back-to-back Cup Finals, and preseason backups Tukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak take undermanned teams to the 2nd and 3rd rounds respectively, and “Big-game choker” Evgeni Nabokov dominating the Red Wings, and Roberto Luongo again fail to make a Conference Final and Ryan Miller go down in Round 1 and Mikka Kipprusoff & Henrik Lundqvuist missing the Playoffs, I just can’t wrap my head around the current state of goaltending in the NHL and wonder how important it really is to have a “top tier” goaltender, or if there’s even such a thing. I’ll go into this phenomenon in more detail another day, but it’s just bizarre to hear people always talk about how important it is for the Pens to have a clutch goalie like Fleury, then watch him lose to Halak who loses to Michael Leighton who loses to Antti Niemi.

Any goalie can catch fire, any goalie can run cold, and perhaps most importantly of all, any team can overcome a hot goalie or compensate for their own goalie’s struggles. Depth on offense and defense, effort, skill, and coaching have proven to be far more indispensable assets than posessing an All-Star goaltender in the past handful of NHL Playoff seasons.

Let this Cup Finals be a lesson to any teams looking to dip into the free-agent goalie market: If you sign a midrange, largely unproven goalie to a long-term, $5-mil-a-year deal, you’re gonna get screwed.

Oh wait – you’ll win the Cup, actually. Never mind.

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