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Why a Flyers, Blackhawks Final is good for the NHL…

Let’s get one thing perfectly clear: If you predicted the Philadelphia Flyers would be in the Stanley Cup Finals before the playoffs began, you were either severely inebriated, medically delusional or Paul Holmgren.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…

28 teams have been eliminated from competition and only two remain. Those two are the surprising Flyers and the talent-laden Chicago Blackhawks.

In other words, two teams that have not been to the Stanley Cup Finals in a long time.

Philadelphia hasn’t been to the Finals since the Legion Of Doom line of Eric Lindros, John LeClair and Mikael Renberg roamed the Wachovia Center and Chicago hasn’t played for the Cup since a guy named Jeremy Roenick was actually on his original team (if you can remember back that far). 1997 and 1992, respectively, were the last times the two clubs have found themselves with a chance to win Lord Stanley’s chalice.

To put it in perspective, Nashville, Columbus, Atlanta and Minnesota didn’t have teams yet and the Winnipeg Jets were fresh off their move to Phoenix.

So yeah… it’s been a while.

But without superstars like Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby or Pavel Datsyuk playing on the NHL’s biggest stage, is that a good thing for a league who almost exclusively promotes it’s star players as opposed to it’s teams?

Luckily, both clubs boast some star power. The Flyers have Chris Pronger, Simon Gagne, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. Heck, even Daniel Briere can provide the flashy, exciting play every once in a while. And the Blackhawks… where to start? Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brian Campbell, Patrick Sharp, yada yada yada. So while there’s no Ovechkin, Crosby or Datsyuk, there are still plenty of stars to market over the next couple weeks.

There’s no shortage of intriguing storylines as well.

On the final game of the regular season, the Flyers played the New York Rangers in a true playoff game. The winner clinched seventh place in the Eastern Conference while the loser locked up ninth place and was forced to watch the postseason from their couches. The game was tied 1-1 at the end of regulation and hockey fans everywhere were treated to a little “playoff” overtime in the regular season. But then the extra session expired with no goal scored and, for the first time in NHL history, a playoff spot hinged on winning a shootout. In the third round of “the gimmick,” Claude Giroux scored and Olli Jokinen didn’t, putting the Flyers into the playoffs. And now that same team, who was literally one puck away from not going dancing at all, is in the Finals.

Another storyline you’ll hear all throughout the series is how all the experts, almost to a man, blasted Chicago for sticking by goaltender Antti Niemi instead of going out and getting an experienced playoff-tested veteran at the trade deadline. All Niemi’s done in his first postseason of any kind is go 12-4 with an outstanding .920 save percentage.

Speaking of goaltenders, the Flyers have suited up five different masked men this season. The much-maligned Ray Emery seemed to be resurrecting his NHL career when, in December, he tore a muscle in his abdomen. Through tests on the injury, it came to light that his career might be over due to avascular necrosis. Then back-up Michael Leighton took over and rattled off 13 wins in his first 17 starts. In late March however, Leighton suffered a high ankle sprain here in Nashville and was slated to miss the rest of the Flyers regular season. Enter NHL journeyman Brian Boucher. Boucher was spotty at best down the stretch for Philadelphia but, when it counted (in the final regular season game and then the playoffs), he played admirably. He disposed of the Cup-favorite New Jersey Devils in the first round and then won game four in the Boston series before two players fell on him in the crease and injured his left knee in game five. Re-enter Leighton. Leighton’s only lost one game since his return and now finds himself the starting goaltender on a club in the Stanley Cup Finals.

And then there’s Marian Hossa.

When the puck drops on Saturday night, Hossa will become the first player in NHL history to play in the Stanley Cup Finals in three consecutive seasons… all on different teams. He was traded from the Atlanta Thrashers to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008. Then, in the off-season, Hossa signed a one-year deal with the same Detroit Red Wings who had beaten his Penguins in the Finals just a month earlier. But, in a cruel twist of irony, the Penguins beat Hossa and his Red Wings in the Finals in 2009. Last July, Hossa signed on with the high-flying Blackhawks. So here he is. In his third straight Finals with his third different team.

So, despite the lack of a Detroit or a Pittsburgh or a Washington vying for the Stanley Cup, there are plenty of stars to market and storylines to publicize. And, even if there weren’t, each team’s fanbase deserves this.

The Flyers haven’t hoisted the Cup since 1975 and the Blackhawks haven’t hung a banner since – *gulp* – 1961. Both fanbases have waited way too long, both are very passionate sports towns and they’re both Top 10 markets in the United States which goes a long way for TV ratings.

Plus, a Stanley Cup Final without the Penguins is just two more weeks we don’t have to watch the media drool over Crosby. And I don’t know about you but that’s the best storyline these Finals could ever give me.

* Tom Begley says “2 solid TV markets will make ratings good and that’s good to attract sponsors.”
* Tara Partyka says “(It’s a) chance to showcase some of the young talent & leadership in Richards & Toews…”
* Chris Burton says “There’s old v. young (Toews/Pronger), there’s great stories (Leighton) and curses (Hossa).”
* Ryan Porth says “2 big markets, 2 fun teams to watch and 2 franchises desperate to win again…”

and then there’s Michelle Neic who says “(It’s good) because I’m a born and raised Flyers fan and my husband of 17 years is a born and raised Blackhawks fan!”

(please, for your own safety, everyone stay away from the Neic household for the remaining two weeks.)

PHOTO CREDITS: Jamie Squire and Michael Heiman (Getty Images)