The Blackhawks haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1961, but their long-suffering fans won’t benefit most if Chicago claims its first trophy since Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull were line mates.
The Flyers had to win a shootout in the final game of the regular season to qualify for they playoffs. They rallied from an 0-3 deficit against Boston in the second round to set up the kind of Cinderella story Philadelphia hasn’t seen since “Rocky”, but it’s Gary Bettman who should be standing on the top step of the Museum of Art, arms raised in triumph.
The matchup between the Broad Street Bullies and the Go-Go ‘Hawks will be a bonanza for a league that needs to cash in on the momentum from Canada’s victory over Team USA in the Olympic gold-medal game. That was the most watched hockey game in the United States since the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team beat Finland to complete its “Miracle on Ice.”
Thanks to two of the country’s most passionate sports cities and numerous storylines, this matchup could continue to build the momentum that started in Vancouver and has continued through the first three rounds, culminating with what may be the most-watched Stanley Cup Final in recent memory.
That’s a significant accomplishment considering how many people wrote the sport off for dead after a labor dispute put the 2004-05 season on ice.
“This one of the most intriguing matchups we’ve had in a long time,” ESPN analyst Barry Melrose said. “Two major markets, two great hockey markets that haven’t won in a while and a ton of great background stories. It’s going to be great. The ratings are going to be awesome.”
A perfect storm of a fresh and fan-friendly marketing approach and an abundance of young talent has turned the Blackhawks into a budding NHL dynasty. The moribund franchise that once ranked last in the league in attendance now ranks first. The Blackhawks have become the league’s new model franchise after decades of dormancy eroded a fan base that once ranked among the league’s best.
The traditional ear-bleeding din fans are again creating when the National Anthem is sung before home games is one of the most spine-tingling sensations in sports.
Goalie Antti Niemi has been the team’s unlikely hero this offseason. When he has been “on,” the Hawks have been virtually unbeatable. A little-sought-after prospect out of the Finnish leagues who used to drive the Zamboni to help make ends meet, Niemi was considered the team’s weak link late in the season but owns an impressive 12-4 record, 2.33 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in his first postseason.
“It’s unbelievable to see the excitement level in this town and to see the Blackhawks front and center,” said Chicago-area native and former Blackhawk Eddie Olczyk, who will be the lead television analyst during the Stanley Cup Finals. “Baseball is going on and the Bears just got done with minicamp but that’s on the back burner right now. For the Blackhawks to come this far in such a short period of time, I commend everybody in that front office. It has come together on a lot of different fronts. It’s been a long time coming.”
The Flyers were a popular choice to win the East at the beginning of the season but were floundering with a 13-11-1 record early in the season when coach Jon Stevens was replaced with Peter Laviolette. An injury riddled, up-and-down season continued until the bitter end, when the Flyers faced playoff elimination before the playoffs even began.
Goalie Brian Boucher stopped an Olli Jokinen shot to eliminate the Rangers in a shootout in the final game of the regular season. When Boucher sprained a ligament in his left knee in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Michael Leighton, who has played for seven different teams since playing in his first NHL game with the Blackhawks in 2002-03, was summoned from the bench. Leighton responded with three shutouts.
“It should be a book,” Melrose said. “Every day something comes up with the Philadelphia Flyers that makes for a great story. It has been amazing.”
In Chicago, where home games weren’t even televised until the 2007-08 season, ratings have been breaking records. The fourth and final game of the Western Conference Finals against San Jose overwhelmed the last episode of “Lost”. A third of the households watching TV in Chicago were tuned into another recent Hawks-Sharks game.
"The NHL has done many very good things," said sports marketing expert Marc Ganis. "One of the their lesser effective aspects has been getting a meaningful number of eyeballs watching games on TV on a national basis. ESPN will play repeats of World Series of Poker that will trounce a live Stanley Cup playoff game.”
Overall, TV viewership is the highest it has been in eight years.
“It’s a home run for the NHL,” Melrose said. “Philadelphia and Chicago. It’s old-time hockey, the Original Six and the original 12. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
CSN: Brent Seabrook scored the winner in overtime and the Blackhawks defeated the Bruins in a 6-5 thriller to tie the Stanley Cup Final 2-2.
Take a visual look at some of the longest championship droughts in sports.
Video: NHL from NBC Sports
Rask credits a team effort on defense
Without the need for an overtime period, the Bruins won Game 3 over the Blackhawks, 2-0. Bruins coach Claude Julien credits Tuukka Rask for his preparation and extreme focus, while Rask appreciates the guys in front of him covering their ice and blocking shots.
Check out photos from the Kings' Stanley Cup victory parade in LA.
Stanley Cup playoffs
Check out photos from the NHL postseason action.
Stanley Cup winners
A look at the teams that have earned the right to hoist Lord Stanley's prize since 1965.
Some of Hollywood's hottest celebrities take in NHL games.
Check out the ice girls from around the National Hockey League.