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Early preview: Flyers will test Hawks

It wasn’t a matchup many could have predicted, but it’s a good one nonetheless. The Chicago Blackhawks will take on the Philadelphia Flyers for the right to be called Stanley Cup champions.

The Flyers advanced almost as easily as the Hawks did, dispatching the Montreal Canadiens in five games with a 4-2 win Monday. They're also seemingly as hot as Chicago.

Led by captain Mike Richards, Philadelphia is as talented as they come. The Flyers didn't always show it during the regular season, but they are now.

Richards (21 points) passed Patrick Kane (20 points) in playoff scoring with three points in the deciding game against Montreal, including a short-handed goal that got the Flyers back into it after they were scored upon in the first minute.

There are several juicy matchups awaiting hockey enthusiasts as the buildup to Saturday’s Game 1 begins.

Let’s start with Richards against Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. And you may as well throw in Dave Bolland. At the end of the day, the biggest success the Hawks have had in the playoffs so far has been shutting down the opposing team’s star players.

Other than Patrick Marleau, none of the San Jose Sharks’ other top dogs did much damage, and don’t forget the job the Hawks did on the Vancouver Canucks’ Sedin brothers in Round 2. Richards is the playmaker, while Danny Briere has been the finisher. His nine goals are more than any Blackhawk has, and he and Richards lead a talented list of Flyers forwards.

On the other end of the ice, the mammoth Chris Pronger most certainly will see a lot of Jonathan Toews and more specifically Dustin Byfuglien. If there is anyone who can move Byfuglien out of the slot, it’s the Flyers’ nasty veteran defenseman. He will quickly become enemy No. 1 among Chicago fans -- if he isn’t already.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if Byfuglien-Pronger crease battles become a focal point and help determine the outcome of the series. Which way the referees call it as they fight down low will be a storyline to watch.

There are several Chicago-Philadelphia connections to be explored heading into the series. The best might be Flyers goaltender Michael Leighton, who was drafted by and played for the Hawks.

Leighton played 42 games in Chicago from 2002 to 2004. In fact, his 34 games played in 2003-04 are still the most he’s played in any regular season in the NHL, including this one. He took over the starting goaltender position midplayoffs when Brian Boucher went down with an injury. Leighton posted three shutouts in the Eastern Conference finals against Montreal.

Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp was traded from Philadelphia -- where he was drafted in 2001 -- to the Blackhawks for forward Matt Ellison in December 2005. Sharp played 66 games for the Flyers and recorded his first 10 NHL goals there.

The Hawks and Flyers played once in the regular season on March 13. Pronger scored with 2.1 seconds left to give Philadelphia a 3-2 win. Cristobal Huet was in goal for that game. The Flyers have never faced Hawks starting netminder Antti Niemi.

Philadelphia poses a tougher matchup for Chicago than San Jose and possibly even Vancouver. The Flyers might not have the depth to skate with the Hawks -- no team does -- but they have enough to cause some concerns. If the Hawks’ top line can be neutralized by Pronger & Co., a long series could be ahead.

Early prediction: Hawks in six. And it won’t be easy.