The conference finals hit the blogumn!
Two games. One night. One laptop. Let's blog.
Game 2: Montreal versus Philadelphia
20:00: Opening faceoff. One reason why this series is so compelling is because these two teams, the Flyers and Canadiens, were the most fearsome and intimidating organizations from my hockey youth. The Canadiens were the Darth Vader of the NHL when I was growing up. They, like everyone else, were not on television much, so they had an extra slice of mystery about them. Hockey in America was radio, magazines, books and a tiny bit of newspaper coverage. This shrouded the game in a certain kind of mystique, allowing the imagination of a kid to take him wherever he wanted to go. With no cable television and Internet, I went to the moon.
Montreal seemed to rise above a lot of the goonery of 1970s hockey and won six Cups in nine seasons. The Canadiens were truly in a league of their own; they were terminator-like. Ken Dryden appeared to be 8 feet tall and intimidated the puck with his vocabulary.
The Flyers, especially in the Spectrum, were a fearsome group. Biker-gang scary. Hairy scary. No team and no fan base caused players to soil themselves during warm-ups more than Flyers Nation during the 1970s. From age 7 (the first Cup playoffs I vividly remember watching and feeling on television) to age 13 (the height of my extraterrestrial dorkiness), either Philadelphia or Montreal won the Stanley Cup. That will shape a young boy.
18:54: The Canadiens have come out much better in Game 2. They are skating very well and seem to have gotten over the hangover of the Penguins series. There is so much passion and energy at the outset of the Stanley Cup playoffs, fans forget all these teams are only halfway there. No one has really accomplished anything. Coming back from two 3-1 deficits takes up a lot of fuel.
17:56: Power play, Canadiens. They were 0-for-4 in Game 1. Scott Gomez's shot is inches away from making it 1-0 Montreal as it tips the bottom of Michael Leighton's glove. Later, Gomez commits a hooking penalty. The Flyers still have a very good vibe about them; they have great energy and a palpable belief that they will win.
15:44: Goal by Danny Briere. Holy Shnikey! What a twisted wrister off a sick backhand pass from Claude Giroux. Jaroslav Halak has a chance for the glove save and whiffs. Hal Gill looked like a 6-foot-7 highway pylon sliding on the ice as Briere attacked him with his speed and shiftiness. It still amazes me the Penguins could not take advantage of Gill's lack of mobility. One reason? The Penguins don't have enough finishers. The Canadiens are 1-5 in the playoffs when the other team scores the first goal.
13:07: The Canadiens are applying good pressure as we approach the midway portion of the first period. One of the obvious tenets of hockey is to posses the puck in the other team's end as much as possible. It's the best defense, it creates scoring chances and it draws penalties, which the Canadiens just did. Power play, Habs.
11:57: Great shot by Tomas Plekanec and Leighton makes a nice blocker save. My goodness, Leighton is out of his mind. He single-handedly killed off the power play with a handful of great saves. This Game 2 is being played the day before his 29th birthday. He was born in Petrolia, Ontario. He has good size at 6-foot-3, 186 pounds. If Montreal keeps playing the way it is right now, it can win this game. But the Habs have to finish and they don't have a lot of those guys. It's truly miraculous they beat the Capitals and Penguins in back-to-back series.
The Canadiens scored just 217 goals during the regular season. In fact, the Flyers have had good matchups so far this postseason. The Devils scored 222 goals during the season and the Bruins just 206. As we have said and documented in this space for the past few years, you need to be a goal-scoring team in the playoffs in the post-lockout NHL. The Flyers have been the higher-scoring team in each of their series. That will end if they make it to the Stanley Cup finals.
5:08: The game has settled down. The Flyers have too many men on the ice and the Canadiens have a power play. Gomez continues his uninspired play in this game so far. He doesn't seem to have the battle in the high-traffic areas that someone like Brian Gionta has in this game.
End of first period: 1-0 Philadelphia
18:18: Montreal is once again playing well to open up the period. Leighton had 16 saves in the first period and has four more in the first three minutes of the second. Montreal is in complete control of this game, save for Leighton. One can't notice the Flyers' big-time players. This speaks of the speed and relentlessness of the Canadiens. This is what I love about hockey teams and hockey fans. Win one series and everyone truly believes their team can win the Cup. I love how fan bases buy in so quickly and completely. It's why losses are so crushing.
11:52: The Flyers finally get two juicy chances, but they can't finish. These are the kinds of moments that shape games. If the Flyers make it 2-0, it could change everything. Like life, every moment matters.
9:57: This game is really weird. It really looks as though Montreal is winning the game. The crowd is kind of out of it. But the score bug still says 1-0 Flyers. The Habs are outshooting the Flyers 21-10, and look comfortable and confident. Strange.
6:01: The game is turning into a late-January, nondescript affair. Not a lot of emotion, not a lot of great chances. This game needs something. Here comes a Flyers power play.
4:11: Goal, Simon Gagne. There you go. A great pass by Mike Richards from behind the net to Ville Leino, who has been excellent. Leino's backhander is saved, but Gagne crams it home. 2-0 Philadelphia. It is Gagne's sixth goal in six games since his return. Richards is one of those great players who uses tension to create energy and concentration. He is competitive and smart, a winning combination.
End of second period: 2-0 Philadelphia
20:00: The Flyers are in a great position to go up 2-0 in the series and may be just two wins away from the Stanley Cup. Let's see how the first five minutes go.
14:49: The Flyers have regained at least neutral ground in the game. They have come out with a good push. The Flyers fans are also getting back into the game. Just as I write that, the Flyers draw a penalty on Gill. Dan Carcillo embellishes an obvious dive, but it is not called. The Flyers can ice the game here on the power play, but they don't. Habs get the kill.
9:36: Leino scores. His beard gets an assist. A soft goal by a rattled Halak, who was standing there as if he was listening to the national anthem. That will do it. The Flyers are going to go up 2-0 in this series.
The fans are in a full lather. I have written in the past how no hockey fan base in the United States can match the love the Flyers fans have for their team. The Penguins have the highest television ratings in the U.S. right now, but Flyers fans have had a very consistent crush on their team.
The Flyers' ownership has consistently given its customers a great product every season (save the early '90s) and fans have responded with unbridled passion. It's an interesting vibe at a Flyers game; there is a constant hum. It's a full-body experience. The fans are very engaged and consistently primed "to sound their barbaric yawp on the rooftops of the world." Yes, Walt Whitman would have been a Flyers fan. And he would come with the rockin'-est playoff beard in the rink, yo.
Game 2: Chicago versus San Jose
20:00: Click on ESPN.com's season preview and you will find my preseason Stanley Cup finals matchup as Philadelphia-Chicago. This was part of my Flyers synopsis:
"The Flyers are tougher and deeper and have higher expectations. They should. They are good; if they raise the Cup in June, it will not be a shock."
And the Hawks:
"From 2001 to 2008, with the exception of 2005, the Hawks drafted a player who contributed in some way to the Hawks' success last season. Three out of four years, they had a top-3 pick. They got Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in back-to-back drafts, selections that can set up an organization for 10 years. The Hawks are hot and should remain so for years to come. The Hawks' Stanley Cup window is now officially open."
Those two were my picks in September and those two are my picks to reach the Cup finals now. The Flyers are two games away from the Eastern Conference title and the Hawks are trying to get into the same position. The Sharks need this game.
No one can describe the narrative of a hockey game like Mike Emrick. He begins by reporting that both teams are healthy, no significant injuries. It's a fact that adds ammunition to the theory that this Western Conference finals series is probably the Stanley Cup finals.
16:25: A possible icing is about to be called and there is a race for the puck. Linesman Jean Morin skates to the puck and zeros in on the sticks and skates attempting to determine who touches the puck first. It looks like a complete mess. But Morin sees the Hawks touch the puck first, calls the icing, and there is no argument. One reason why NHL officials are generally good at these calls is they are young, athletic and have played the game at a pretty high level. They might not get them all, but they have a very high percentage on offsides and icings. Not only has the skating of the players improved over the past 10-20 years, but the skating of the officials has also improved right along with it. It had to improve or they would be constantly getting in the way.
14:25: This game has much better pace than the Flyers-Canadiens game did. It is five-star hockey. Fast and furious. This is almost always guaranteed when the home team loses Game 1. A big save by Antti Niemi on Devin Setoguchi. These two teams are playing entertaining up-and-down hockey. The Eastern Conference champ will have to make a major adjustment to deal with the speed and pace of either of these teams.
7:12: Goal, Andrew Ladd. What a wrist shot from about 43 feet. This incredibly entertaining first period just got some punctuation. Seconds later, a dicey penalty is called on the Sharks and the Hawks go right on the power play.
3:45: Hawks captain Jonathan Toews is having a real strong game. He is such a smart, consistent, reliable player. He truly is one of the best, most important players in the NHL. If the Hawks win the Stanley Cup, Toews is destined to win the Conn Smythe Trophy. His game has so much integrity. Everything he does is with purpose and meaning.
End of the first period: 1-0 Chicago.
16:50: The game settles. Both teams know the importance of the next goal. Both of these teams are good goal-prevention teams. You can't fall behind 2-0 to teams like this. The pace quickens at the 15:00 mark. The game is heating up again.
13:01: Dustin Byfuglien scores. Amid some beautiful chaos, Patrick Kane used his lightning feet to get the puck to the middle of the ice, throws it at the net and the Byfuglien redirects it in. Byfuglien's weight has been estimated by NHL announcers as anywhere from 234 to 809 pounds. If Byfuglien were born in Ohio, he would have been a starting left guard at Ohio State and possibly made it to the NFL. Much in life is an accident; where and when we are born determines as much.
11:31: 3-0, Hawks. This game is turning into a romp. Toews redirects a Duncan Keith slap shot into the net. Chicago is just too much for San Jose so far. The Hawks are such a gritty, fast and responsible team, the Sharks can't find any time and space to do anything. They are now going on the power play. They better score.
4:45: The Sharks have found their game; they are playing fast and physical. They need to keep using their physical play to create turnovers. The way to beat the Hawks is to pound on the defense and wingers and get turnovers off the wall. Going up and down with the Hawks won't work; they skate too well. Either way, this has been a great period for the Sharks. They have cracked the code a bit. They know how they have to play to beat the Hawks. Now, they just have to execute.
End of the second period: 3-1 Chicago
20:00: The Hawks have won six straight road playoff games. The record is seven by multiple teams. The Hawks are 20 minutes away from equaling that mark.
13:42: 4-1, Hawks. Marian Hossa sets up Niklas Hjalmarsson for the goal. Hjalmarsson is Swedish for Jar of Molson. He is very popular in Stockholm and Sarnia pubs. This goal has deflated the Sharks. Both conference finals series are about to go 2-0.
11:46: A frustrated Thornton takes a blatant slashing penalty on a faceoff. Deflation can often lead to frustration. Power play, Hawks. They don't score, but get a free two minutes off the clock.
7:29: Despite being down 4-1, Thornton is still showing great hustle and effort. He has never had such an outward display of hustle in his career. He has always let the game come to him. That works in the regular season, but it doesn't work in the playoffs. A hockey player has to take himself to the game in the postseason, and do it with zeal. Thornton has done that, and the Sharks are in the conference finals. As long as he takes that game to Chicago, the Sharks still have a chance.
4:29: Goal, Marleau. 4-2, Sharks. The Sharks are still alive. This play started with a purposeful play by Thornton before he ended his shift. Marleau finished after a strong run at the net by Dany Heatley off a Dan Boyle shot. The Sharks' best players are still competing hard. That's another good sign. Maybe not in this game, but going forward.
2:06: Kane's hustle and determination to get between Rob Blake and the boards during a race for the puck helps draw a penalty that should ice the game. Kane is such a joy to watch; light on his skates with a viciously high hockey IQ. He has been very strong in these playoffs and is still on the Conn Smythe list, as well.
The Hawks and Flyers both win and both go up 2-0 in their respective series. One day off for the Flyers and Canadiens, two days off for the Sharks and Blackhawks. Friday night hockey in Chicago. Now that's what I call a party.
John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or crosschecks -- is email@example.com.