If you had asked me before the 2009-2010 NHL season to pick three teams from the Eastern Conference that could make the Stanley Cup Finals, the Philadelphia Flyers would've been a lock for my third spot.
A few weeks into the season, they could be found hovering around the top spot of any number of power rankings around the web. And with a roster like theirs and a decent start, why not?
So what the hell happened? How did it come to needing a shootout win in Game 82, despite playing in a conference with a pond full of lame-duck teams? The Islanders are in their conference. That's like giving a team a 10-point head start.
Looking at the players in orange, I can't for the life of me figure out how they ever managed to "earn" underdog status. Following their year has been like watching Michael Phelps race with ankle weights. But, it seems like they've finally managed to shed them.
If you can look past their polar-opposite performances in the regular season, the two teams in the Stanley Cup Finals aren't that much different.
I often attribute the Chicago Blackhawks' success to their ability to play any style of game. They can play tough if they have to — they have Dustin Byfuglien(notes), Ben Eager(notes), Adam Burish(notes) and Dave Bolland(notes) for that category.
And it's easy to see why Chicago is a menace offensively. It has the third highest goals-per-game average of this year's 16 playoff teams, racking up a 3.31 via 53 goals in 16 games. It is three lines deep, with:
But Philadelphia's three lines are hardly any less menacing:
And using those nine forwards, it's compiled the most goals of any team in the playoffs, with 54 in 17 games for a 3.18 average.
Both teams have quality goaltending, and both teams boast good d-corps.
Which is exactly why the question has to be asked — what is the major deficiency in this team that led them to such a gawd-awful season this year? There has to be something. You don't compile a 41-36-5 record (with the help of shootout wins) if you're a talented team without having a couple serious flaws.
Do they still have them, or are those wrinkles suddenly ironed out?
On Dec. 5, the Philadelphia Flyers had just been shut out in back-to-back games, and general manager Paul Holmgren had seen enough. He fired John Stevens and brought in a guy whose name is already engraved on the Stanley Cup, Peter Laviolette.
And some think that was the catalyst for the Flyers turnaround and current success.
The thing is, by the time they brought in Laviolette, their record was 13-11-1, or, roughly what it continued to be for the rest of the year. Since we didn't see a change over the next 57 regular-season games, I'm a little hesitant to chalk up their progress to him.
So what's changed? Or has anything?
There has always seemed to be something that eats away at this Flyers team like the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Why has that roster struggled for so long to find some swagger until now?
The best hope for Flyer fans, is that some teams just take a little longer than others to find their "it," to find their identity. Maybe it just took the Flyers a really, really long time. Maybe their Colorado River has dried up.
It's crunch time, and we're about to find out whether that inner-erosion still flows, or if it just took most of the season for them to become the team they should be.
If they have indeed recently found "it," the Stanley Cup Finals just got a whole lot more interesting.