Philadelphia Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette instructs his players during a break in the action of the second period of Game 5 of the NHL hockey Eastern Conference finals with the Montreal Canadiens, Monday, May 24, 2010, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Tom Mihalek)
PHILADELPHIA - When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman hands the Stanley Cup to Chicago captain Jonathan Toews or Philadelphia counterpart Mike Richards, a hockey-crazed city will be satisfied for the first time in decades.
The Stanley Cup finals are set: Blackhawks versus Flyers.
Chicago hasn't claimed the silver chalice since 1961, when the league had only six teams, and Philadelphia wasn't one of them. The Flyers are seeking their first title since hoisting the Cup in 1974 and 1975, when the franchise was less than 10 years old.
Philadelphia rose from the No. 7 seed and earned its title shot Monday night with a 4-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final—a far cry from its second-round win in Game 7 against Boston that completed a 3-0 series comeback and a 3-0 rally in the decisive contest.
Chicago punched its ticket on Sunday, also at home, when the Blackhawks completed a four-game sweep of San Jose.
After benefiting from unlikely home-ice advantage against the eighth-seeded Canadiens, the Flyers will start the final Saturday night in Chicago. Philadelphia is 7-1 at home in the playoffs, 5-4 on the road.
The Blackhawks are 7-1 away from home and 5-3 at raucous United Center in the post-season.
When the season started in October, the Blackhawks were a popular choice to represent the Western Conference and make their first finals appearance since 1992. The Flyers were considered a favourite in the East.
That title talk ended quickly as Philadelphia dropped to the bottom of the standings and replaced coach John Stevens with Peter Laviolette in December. The Flyers ran the gamut of peaks and valleys on either side of the holiday and Olympic breaks before making a final playoff surge in the dwindling days of the regular season.
"It's been a long year," said forward Jeff Carter, who returned from injury in Game 4 and had two goals on Monday. "A lot of things have happened. You learn from those. It builds character and you just keep going with it.
"We have a group of guys in that room that no matter what happens, they never give up. We've seen that come to the forefront in these playoff series. It's a pretty amazing thing to be a part of."
It wasn't until Brian Boucher stopped New York Rangers forward Olli Jokinen in the final round of the shootout on the final day of the regular season that the Flyers secured a place in the post-season.
Then they made the most of it.
"I think it's a remarkable story," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "They're on life support the last game of the year, in the Boston series, as well. They found a way to get themselves where they were playing as well as they played at any stretch this year. They got healthy.
"They've got a lot of ammunition there, but we'll see what happens."
In their lone meeting this season, the Flyers rallied to beat the Blackhawks 3-2 on March 13 at home when defenceman Chris Pronger scored the winning goal with 2.1 seconds remaining.
Chicago won 11 more games than the Flyers during the regular season and finished 24 points in front of them in the overall NHL standings.
"I don't think we are underdogs," said Richards, who had a goal and two assists in the clinching win over Montreal. "I know what this team is capable of and how we're capable of playing. Our year wasn't the same as theirs—a whirlwind and the ups and downs and the roller coaster that we went on this year."
After getting close a few times in recent years, Philadelphia is playing for the Cup for the first time since being swept by Detroit in 1997.
The Blackhawks took a different path. After reaching the conference final last year, this young, dynamic group from Chicago gained the requisite experience to learn how to win.
With maturity exceeding their years, the Blackhawks challenged for the top seed in the West, but settled for No. 2 along with their Central Division title over defending conference champion Detroit. Despite being an Original Six franchise, Chicago had become a bit of a forgotten hockey city. The Blackhawks hadn't even finished first intheir division since 1993.
That has all changed since the arrival of Toews, Patrick Kane, and first-year starting goalie Antti Niemi, and the emergence of power forward Dustin Byfuglien as a post-season force.
The 257-pound Byfuglien has eight goals in 16 playoff games this year, and four have been game-winners, including the one that sealed Sunday's 4-2 victory.
"I think it started in the Vancouver series. All those fans were getting on his case. He wasn't popular in that building," Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said of the man known as "Big Buff."
''Seems like he likes the spotlight. He likes being the hero. He steps up in big-time."
Niemi is 12-4 in the playoffs with a 2.33 goals-against average in 16 games.
You would never believe Chicago was the Second City in the hockey world these days after the club surged into the Cup finals with a sweep over top-seeded San Jose.
Michael Leighton and the Flyers are also riding quite a wave. Philadelphia has won eight of nine overall and seven of eight since Leighton took over in goal for the injured Boucher during Game 5 against Boston.
Leighton combined with Boucher on a shutout that night, fuelling the Flyers' historic comeback, and then blanked the Canadiens in each of Philadelphia's first three wins of the conference finals.
"We just feel comfortable playing in front of whoever is in net," Richards said. "All year it's been pretty much somebody different from month to month. The playoffs have been no different. We feel comfortable with Leights in net as he probably feels comfortable stepping into a situation that probably wasn't the easiest."
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