Light It Up
The first game of the Stanley Cup finals did not disappoint. It was a fierce competition between two great, scrappy, hard-working teams. The Flyers and the Blackhawks scored 11 goals altogether in this narrow 6-5 Chicago win, causing such madness on the ice that they’re going to have to order more red light bulbs. The motto of this game? More is more.
More goals, more penalties, more goalies. The first period alone kept score keepers on their toes with 3 penalties (all for Chicago) and 5 goals. The second period saw a goalie change with Leighton being pulled after allowing 4 goals on 14 shots. It wasn’t surprising to see this change; the Flyers had been talking about Boucher making a comeback in this series after injuring both knees. And he did a good enough job.
Motion of non-confidence
While Niemi and Leighton share in the credit of getting their teams to the Stanley Cup finals, it’s hard to make the argument that great goaltending makes the true difference in a playoffs. Let’s face it, both Niemi and Leighton are fine goalies. They don’t make a lot of spectacular saves and they have some serious chinks in their armour. And those chinks more than showed themselves last night.
It was an offensive feast the other night and it’s pretty clear that the past numbers of Niemi and Leighton lie. Their averages may look really good on paper, but a closer look at the plays in front of the net reveal that it’s not their prowess, but that of the defense that is making the difference. The defense is working hard in front of the blue paint to make sure that most of those shots don’t even make it anywhere near the net and that’s how the numbers lie.
Both goaltenders are big in the net and they’re good at tracking the puck, mostly due to their size. Niemi’s weakness is up high over the net and rebound control. He gives up so many juicy rebounds that even if his defense comes through for him 90% of the time, the other 10% of the time, he’s beat. For opposition teams, that’s just a question of getting more opportunities because it’s really just a matter of time.
On the other hand, Leighton’s weakness is down low and everyone seems to want to five hole him. He just can’t seem to get his pads together in time and close in on the puck. He’s also not strong when a bad turnover leads to a breakaway, an indication that shoot outs would spell the end.
Both Niemi and Leighton have never played in a Stanley Cup finals before and it’s true that nerves may have played a big role in this blow out. They’re going to have to learn to conquer them pretty quickly, though, if they truly want to make the difference in this series.
The defense last night was not consistent on either end. At some points in the game, it was airtight, and at others, it was a disorganized flurry of bodies and sticks. You could clearly tell that the Blackhawks defensive body was doing serious overtime by the way that they crowded the area right in front of the net like they were supplemental goalies. This did backfire on them many times, with Hartnell and Briere taking full advantage of the time and space left on the ice as a result. There’s clearly a lack of confidence in Niemi’s ability to play his role, and this is not going to help him gain more moving ahead in this series.
There is no doubt that Chicago relishes being an offensive team. This doesn’t mean that they’re lazy in their own zone, but this team likes to score. Like other highly offensive minded teams in the NHL, they often concentrate more on racking it up and are happy to have a mediocre goaltender to mind the net. It’s often been said that Chicago’s one weak point is their goaltending. Niemi and Huet are the go-to goalies for the Blackhawks and they’ve got nothing on the likes of Brodeur, Miller and Halak. Those men are gold. The fact that they’ve made it this far without a golden goalie is incredible, but how much further can they go?
In a strange role reversal, Philadelphia is not used to being an offensive powerhouse. Their game strategy is generally focused around hard working, scrappy, highly defensive play. They’re used to bruiser type games with low scores and marginal 1 point wins. It seems like they were conserving their energy to get here to the finals before unleashing their goal scorers. This is probably more goals than they’re scored in some regular season series.
A Sea of Consistency
Some players have been incredibly valuable throughout the post-season to their teams and they continue to be so. For Philadelphia, it’s definitely Hartnell, Briere and Leino who have been regulars on the score board. For Chicago, it’s been Sharp, Versteeg and Bolland.
Some noticeable absentees for this game? Toews, Kane and Byfuglien. They did their part in the game, with Toews winning most of his face offs, and Byfuglien getting a bit physical with some of the Flyers, but where was Kane in all of this? There are some moments when this man just disappears off the ice, which is a difficult thing to do when you have a curly mullet coming out of your helmet.
When San Jose went down to Chicago, their big line was noticeably absent as well. Heatley and Thornton were practically non-factors in their series sweep, with only Marleau bringing his A game. Chicago would do well to remember that, as only Sharp came through on their big line.
You will always have the secondary and third lines come through at key moments and they will often surprise themselves as much as they surprise you. Betts and Kopecky were two surprises in last night’s game, with Kopecky putting the final point on the board to separate these pretty well matched teams. But if you want to win, your big names have to come through for you at some point.
While this was a win for Chicago, it very easily could have been a win for Philadelphia. There’s no clear dominance in this series so far. Philadelphia has to keep playing a hard game and being opportunistic in front of Niemi, particularly on those big rebounds. They just have to swing at everything. Chicago has to stay out of the box, play a more disciplined and consistent defensive game and show their goaltender a bit more confidence.
The reffing was also incredibly strange. A lot of non-calls and they seem to want the teams to get aggressive and develop a bit of animosity. Well, it’s the playoffs, right, and everyone loves an aggressive game. More to come on Monday and let’s hope everyone’s learned their lessons with game one. Now that the goaltenders on both ends have been brought down to earth, warts and all, we may see even more blowout games.
About the Author
Written by Mika Oehling
Office worker and sports nerd. Cannot play a professional sport to save my life, but love to write. Prone to rants, raves, snarky humour and caustic commentary. My team's the Ottawa Senators. Author of Armchair Hockey, a work of humourous fiction released this year and available for sale online at Chapters and Amazon.