Darren Eliot
Wednesday May 26th, 2010

The Stanley Cup Final between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Chicago Blackhawks wasn't far-fetched if proposed in October.

In April? Preposterous.

None of the doubt had to do with the Blackhawks, either. They built on last season and took it to the next natural step. All of that is to their credit. They moved forward in as linear a fashion as possible.

Sure, David Bolland missed much of the season after back surgery and veteran blueliner Kim Johnsson went out of the lineup with a concussion. And all season long, coach Joel Quenneville looked for either Cristobal Huet or Antti Niemi to grab the goaltending reins. Maybe you can add Marian Hossa's shoulder surgery, which delayed his debut with the team until late November and limited his production (24 goals, 51 points) to his lowest totals since he scored 15 and 30 in 60 games for Ottawa back in 1998-99 as yet another negative, but on all fronts, the Blackhawks have moved on and prospered.

Bolland is back and healthy, providing grit as a checker and some big goals as well. The blueline hasn't missed a beat, either, leaning on Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook all the more and to great effect. Niemi has flourished as the go-to guy and Hossa as a third-line checker has given the Blackhawks considerable depth. Dustin Byfuglien moving to the top line has proved to be one of the best personnel adjustments of the entire playoffs.

Contrast the Flyers, though, and adversity takes on a whole new meaning.

I mean, they win in a shootout on the last day of the regular season to qualify for the playoffs, then later rally from a three-games-to-none deficit vs. Boston, and that included falling behind 3-0 in the first period of Game 7 before coming all the way back to win the game and advance to the conference final. Throw in a December coaching change even though the team started as anticipated with a 13-5-1 record, then add multiple major injuries and a goaltending stable full of dark horses and glue factory candidates and you have the Flyers' fortunes in a nutshell.

In total, there is no precedent for such improbability. The Flyers' journey is unparalleled, yet here they are in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1997.

(GALLERY: Most unlikely Stanley Cup finalists)

Prior to the 2009-10 campaign, though, the Flyers looked to be a legitimate contender in the east, especially after adding veteran rearguard Chris Pronger for his nasty presence and penchant for patrolling his own end with great vigilance. Sure, Ray Emery was a long shot in goal, but a reasonable one at that. Now he is but a distant memory.

Pronger, though, has delivered as expected, but so much more has happened to get the Flyers to the final. Along the way, they got healthy with the return of top scorers Simon Gagne, Jeff Carter and goaltender Michael Leighton. Daniel Briere and Claude Giroux performed as both have in playoffs past, meaning they had much more of an impact than during the regular season.

And through it all, captain Mike Richards provided the spark in true Flyers fashion, playing the quintessential two-way game that spawned the term "gamer." Nowhere was that term more apt than in his Game 5 closeout performance in the ECF in which he scored a goal, set up two more and seemingly willed his team to victory. His effort without the puck was equal to, if not better, than his play with it.

So, while the roads traveled were vastly different, the destination was the same. The Flyers' took more twists and turns than any Hollywood writer could come up with, while the Blackhawks' quest seemed boring in its lack of the unexpected.

Now that both have arrived in the Stanley Cup Final, expect anything but boring. This match-up has the potential to be an attention-grabber from the opening puck drop in Game 1 on Saturday night.

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