10 days ago, I said the Chicago Blackhawks would win the Stanley Cup Finals in six games. I hate that I might have been right.
The Flyers could have won Game 1. They could have won Game 2. At the very least, it didn't feel like the series should have been 2-0 Chicago. They were competitive, back-and-forth games, and anyone watching closely knew we were in for a long series.
And then Games 3 and 4 happened, and Flyers fans started to believe. It started to feel like the Flyers were rounding into form, that they were in Chicago's head, that they could steal Game 5 on the road and start planning the victory parade for this coming Friday.
But we aren't thinking that anymore. Game 5 was an out-and-out disaster, and now no one's even dreaming about any sort of parade. We Flyers fans are just hoping to stay alive for a few more days.
Michael Leighton needs to be in goal tomorrow night. As Peter Laviolette said today, he has the best numbers in the playoffs. He's the reason they outlasted the Bruins, and he's the reason they shut down the Canadiens. He wasn't great in Game 1 or Game 5, and he hasn't won a game single-handedly this series. But I don't think anyone expects Boucher to stand on his head, either.
Leighton's no acrobat, he's no Dominik Hasek or Martin Brodeur. He's not a game-changing goalie. He's tended his best goal when the Flyers were playing picture-perfect defense, when they were clearing out every rebound and forcing nothing but shots from the outside, shots they either blocked or Leighton scooped up into his glove.
Leighton's no slouch, but I think he's only as good as the team around him. Perhaps more truthfully, he's only as good as the four stud defensemen around him. Carle, Timonen, Coburn, and Chris Pronger. It's no coincidence that Game 4 of the Montreal series and Game 5 of the Cup Finals felt similar -- they were probably Chris Pronger's two worst playoff games. He was a career-worst minus-5 in Game 5, and his suddenly rejuvenated nemesis Dustin Byfuglien absolutely destroyed him against the boards, a hit that might be the most replayed moment of the Finals if the Blackhawks close the Flyers out. It was not pretty.
All the talk about Pronger being the Conn Smythe winner, should the Flyers win the series, was justified, but there's a flip side to that. The Flyers rely on Pronger so greatly that if he has a bad game, it reverberates all over the ice. I don't think he's tired, I don't think he's burnt out; I think he, like the rest of the team, wasn't ready for the early Chicago rush on Sunday night, and it put them in far too big a hole to recover.
There's no room in the Stanley Cup Finals for a period like the first in Game 5. Maybe there was when offensively stagnant teams like Boston and Montreal were in town, but Chicago is a different animal. They'll put you in a hole, and they'll keep you there. Even if you battle back, as the Flyers looked like they might do for a little while, the Blackhawks aren't gonna be shut out for the last 40 minutes. You have to get the jump on them if you want to win, and that was something the Flyers did not do on Sunday night.
The Flyers are going to have to play two almost-perfect games to win the Stanley Cup. They're going to need to steamroll the Blackhawks tomorrow night at the Wachovia Center, and they're going to have to take that momentum into Chicago and survive the outrageousness of a Game 7 at the United Center. It won't be impossible, but in all honesty, it'll probably be as difficult as winning three straight against the Bruins. The Flyers have shown an almost unreal resiliency throughout the playoffs, but to be remembered as more than a runner-up, they'll have to pull off perhaps their greatest comeback of all.