Friday, May 28, 2010

Flyers vs. Hawks: I Can't Miss

As a big fan of both teams, the fact that the Flyers and Blackhawks are playing for the Stanley Cup has left me in a position where I’ve got an empty net. I can’t miss! One of my teams is about to win the Stanley Cup.

For as long as I’ve followed hockey – over 20 years now – I never seriously considered the possibility that these two teams would ever face each other in the championship round.

They’ve each had their waves of good fortune. They’ve made the conference finals in the same year. They’ve been perennial playoff teams (save for an abysmal stretch for the Blackhawks for most of the early 2000’s). But, there was usually a better team lurking somewhere in one of the conferences that would take care of the Hawks and/or Flyers to keep them apart from playing for one of the holy grails in all of sports.

This year, the stars have aligned.

Detroit – a longtime nemesis of Chicago – defeated the Blackhawks on the final day of the regular season, costing the Hawks the number one seed in the west. But, with the way things fell, it also allowed the Hawks to avoid having to play Detroit until the Conference Finals, which became a moot point after San Jose eliminated the Wings in round 2.

Chicago got to face Nashville – oddly enough, their toughest series foe so far – in round one. Things looked iffy for a while, with the Hawks trailing the series 2-1. After winning game four in Nashville, the Hawks needed a last second goal by Patrick Kane, a 5-minute penalty kill in overtime, and then a game-winning goal scored by (the man who had just committed the penalty), Marian Hossa to regain control of the series.

Then, Chicago got the two most favorable matchups they could have hoped for, facing Vancouver in round two – the team they beat both physically and mentally a year ago, bringing their goalie, Roberto Luongo to tears. After disposing of the Canucks, it was on to San Jose, who, despite being the number one seed, and after a swift dismissal of the Red Wings, hardly scared Chicago.

Sure enough, the Hawks went for the throat, taking the first two games in San Jose, before sweeping them away like a pesky fly.

On the Philly side, they had to win on the final day of the regular season just to get IN to the post season. Then, they matched up with a New Jersey team that for some reason was a pushover for the Flyers throughout the year (a 5-1 record against them this season). The trend continued with a 5-game win.

Then, thanks to Boston knocking off Buffalo, and Montreal taking care of Washington, the Flyers got to play Boston instead of Pittsburgh.

And, thanks to the Bruins capping off one of the biggest choke jobs in the history of sports, the Flyers were able to bounce back from an 0-3 hole in the series, and an 0-3 hole in game 7 to take the series.

Montreal did the Flyers another favor, eliminating Pittsburgh in round 2, which gave the 7-seeded Flyers home ice advantage for the Eastern Conference Finals.

What was I saying about the stars aligning?

So, after the Blackhawks completed their breeze of a series with the Sharks, and as the Flyers were putting away the Canadiens in game five, I sat there just shaking my head in disbelief.

The Flyers vs. the Blackhawks for the Stanley Cup??

The only question now is what team do I root for?

If you’ve read this blog at all before, you probably understand my loyalty to the four major sports teams from Philly (more so the Phillies, Flyers, and Eagles, as I’m not much of an NBA fan, and I don’t think the Sixers are even in the NBA anymore anyway), but since I’ve been in the Chicago suburbs – we moved from Philly when I was five – the Blackhawks are the team I’ve become a fan of the most, edging the White Sox, with all of the other teams in Chi-town deep down on the list right next to the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Mets.

I can trace my first enjoyment of the Blackhawks to the early 80’s, in our basement, listening to the radio call of Pat Foley of a random game on a cold winter night. The excitement in his voice, the roar of the crowd after a goal, it just clicked with me, more so then any other team in town.

As I got older, my interest in the Hawks grew, and by the late 80’s, several of my buddies from high school would make a point to get to at least one game a year, and as the Hawks playoff surge began in ’89, we tried to get to at least one game in every playoff round.

Hardly qualifying as a fan frenzy, but on a limited budget, and with tickets hard to come by, not a bad feat.

We’d normally go for the cheap “standing-room” only tickets, forcing us to get to the Stadium as soon as the gates opened, then racing to our spot – usually behind the organ – to stand for the next four hours cheering on the Hawks in the loudest building in the league.

You can’t describe to someone what the old Chicago Stadium was like. The current United Center may be able to get more fans to the game (5,000 more), but it’s not even close. The sound in the Stadium during the anthem, or right after a key goal was scored would simply devour you. Pure intoxication.

This was one of the frustrating things about being a diehard Philly fan living near Chicago. It was virtually impossible to enjoy that kind of feeling at a home game in Philly.

Becoming a fan of the Hawks allowed me to participate at a hockey game, where the euphoria of big goal, or a big save outweighs by a wide margin a similar feeling in a football or baseball game, simply because in the other sports you can anticipate a play as it’s happening. In hockey, sure, you can see a player windup to shoot, but the outcome is completely unknown, until you see that puck squirt through, or if you’re on the other end of the ice in the standing room section behind the organ, you’re in the dark about whether it’s in the net or not until you see that glorious red light come on.

I used to bring a cassette recorder to the Stadium to do play-by-play of Hawks games, often doing a Pat Foley imitation (“now, here’s the draaaaw”). Heck, Foley was one of my major influences for choosing a broadcast career, and thanks to my mom who sent him a letter, and to my college radio station providing me an outlet, I was able to interview Foley in 1991 in the bowels of the Stadium.

The last time the Stanley Cup was seen in Chicago, I was there. Game four of the ’92 Finals, a 6-5 clinching win for Pittsburgh.

Following the Flyers over the years has not been as easy, having to resort to catching them when they’re on a national network broadcast – something that isn’t guaranteed in the Chicago market, even during the postseason – but that certainly hasn’t derailed my enthusiasm for them.

I still remember watching them rally to win Game 6 of the ’87 Cup Finals against Edmonton (J.J. Daigneault!!), the oh-so-closes with the Lindros teams, and the near misses with teams led by Primeau, Roenick, etc.

Philly is in my blood, even though I didn’t actively become a sports fan until moving to Illinois, but the Hawks are right up there as well.

I guess it might take until Saturday night before I can answer who I’ll be rooting for.

When the first goal is scored, how will I react? As of today, the answer to that question is far from being as easy as a shot at an empty net.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Sharks Bit

The only sad thing about watching Dustin Byfuglien's overtime game-winning goal last night to defeat San Jose 3-2 was not getting to hear Pat Foley make the call.

The Blackhawks -- who now lead the Western Conference Finals series 3-0 -- had to battle through (way too many) penalties, which contributed to a robust 46 shots from San Jose.

Once again, Antti Niemi came up huge, and Chicago finally found a way to win at home, after being just average in the "Madhouse on Madison" during these playoffs.

Sunday afternoon, the Hawks can earn their first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals since 1992.

They very well could face my Flyers, who are in a bit of a tougher series with Montreal, thanks to the Canadiens 5-1 win in Game three Thursday night.

I'm still wrestling with the idea of potentially seeing my two favorite teams playing for the championship...something I've never had to face before.

Would my happiness for whichever team would hoist the Cup outweigh my disappointment for the team that will have come so close, only to come up short.

I hope I get to find out.

I certainly don't want to see San Jose, or Montreal win it all.

At least the Flyers don't have to worry about giving up a 3-0 lead in a series, after just completing a comeback from down 3-0.

Uh-oh, the Blackhawks are now up 3-0. San Jose has the recent Flyers comeback to use as inspiration. I knew I could find a way to feel bad about the Hawks 3-0 lead!!!

On tap for today, the Flyers and Habs in Game 4.

A good start would be nice for Philly. Hopefully we can get more shots like this fantastic picture from game two...

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Flying High

Well, it took one of the most unbelievable comebacks in the history of sports -- not an exaggeration -- for me to get off my hind quarters and make a post on here.

The Philadelphia Flyers not only rallied from down three games to none in their Eastern Conference Semi-final series against the Boston Bruins to win after taking four straight games, but they won the final game last night rallying from a 3-0 defecit to win 4-3!

Unfathomable. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I would have never, EVER believed it.

And, how exactly did THIS Flyers team pull off the (nearly) impossible? They had a decent year, but nothing special. They generated zero buzz heading into the playoffs. Heck, they had to win on the final day of the year just to get in as a 7th seed.

When this series started to head downhill, who would have ever thought that THIS group would rally?

Winning the series? Yeah, right. Winning game four was a minor miracle.

Oh yeah, they also lost their starting goalie in game 5.

No problem.

And this isn't just a Flyers fan trumpeting a great comeback. This almost never happens. In ANY sport.

Just four times now, in almost 70 years, in ANY of the three sports that utilize a 7-game series has a team rallied from down 0-3 to win it.

Three of those four times it's happened in the NHL.

The other time was the Red Sox win over the Yankees in 2004.

So, how does it feel to be on the other end, Boston?

And, the craziest thing is that the Flyers now have home ice advantage in the Conference Finals, thanks to Montreal's even wilder run in the playoffs, knocking off the number 1-seed, followed by the defending Cup Champions.

Which sets up a tantalizing Cup Finals possiblity, as it is certainly within reason for Philly to advance along with Chicago (the 2-seed in the Western Conference).

The Blackhawks are my 2nd favorite team. Although, the gap between the Flyers and Blackhawks for my prime rooting interest is very small.

So much so, that if that matchup were to take place, I'm not sure I would be able to root for either side. I very well could cheer every goal and watch every game with a big smile on my face knowing that one of my teams would win the Stanley Cup.

Both teams are due. The Hawks haven't won since 1961, and the Flyers haven't won since 1975.

Maybe last night was the Flyers Cup win -- to a certain extent, of course. They could very well come out flat in the series with Montreal, and fail to advance, having spent so much energy rallying to beat Boston.

But, their place in history is already secure. What they did last night will always be mentioned in any conversation about great comebacks.

I watched the last two minutes of the game with my nine-year old daughter, after successfully convincing her to join me.

I told her that what she was watching was history. She's not much of a sports fan, has no allegiance to Philadelphia -- as I do -- and probably won't watch many more games this season, unless it's a similar game or series clinching moment that's about to happen, but I bet she'll never forget what she saw last night.

I know I won't. Either will the rest of the sports world.