Friday May 28th, 2010

The anticipation is building for what everyone is expecting to be an epic battle between the Flyers' bruise dispensing defender, Chris Pronger, and the Blackhawks' buffalo-sized forward, Dustin Byfuglien. I'm starting to wonder though if this might not be an epic mismatch, with the heavily-hyped Byfuglien coming out on the short end.

That's no knock on Big Buff, who was famously described by Vancouver defender Kevin Bieksa earlier in these playoffs as "275 pounds of loose meat." That's a bit of an exaggeration. Byfuglien is actually only 6-4, 257 -- but the point is accurate. After starting the postseason as a blueline stand-in, Byfuglien has made his name as hockey's most immovable object.

But Pronger, a more svelte 6-6, 220, seems ideally suited for the task of minimizing Big Buff's impact. It's not so much an edge in strength as it is experience.

Think back to how easily Pronger, when he was playing for the Ducks, handled Tomas Holmstrom of the Red Wings. No longer able to feed trespassers a steady diet of Koho sandwiches, Pronger has developed a smarter game that suggests he'll limit physical confrontation and focus on cutting off Byfuglien's supply lines. He'll still let him know he's there, but he'll spend more of his energy blocking shot attempts, clogging the passing lanes, and keeping Byfuglien's stick occupied.

And as hot as he's been in the playoffs, with three game-winners in the San Jose series alone, Byfuglien is hardly capable of creating offense on his own. This is a player, after all, whose career high is 36 points. If the puck isn't getting to him, he's going to have a hard time making things happen on his own.

While the Flyers may have the upper hand in that battle, the Hawks could still come out on top. After all, if Pronger's attentions are tied up by Byfuglien, that leaves two of the real drivers of Chicago's offense, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, to be handled by Matt Carle. The young defender has played a nearly seamless game at Pronger's side, but he'd be taxed by the assignment, at least on his own. Keith Jones of Versus thinks Pronger could have an impact on that battle as well.

"I remember a couple of instances where [Pronger] was actually coaching players on his own team on how to defend against [the Red Wings fowards down low]," he said on a conference call with the media on Thursday. "I think it was James Wisniewski last year. Using that veteran leadership and awareness that he has to teach other players how to stop what had been such a great weapon for the Red Wings, that could come into play here."

Granted it's a relatively small sample, but it's hard to ignore the discipline of the Flyers when analyzing their postseason success. A team that averaged 16.6 penalty minutes per game in the regular season -- second most in the league -- has cut back to just 11.9 minutes in the playoffs. That drop is even more impressive when placed in the context of a simple eyeball test: the Flyers have been as hard a team to play against as any this spring. So while they continue to exact a price from the opposition, smart positioning keeps them on the ice. That's especially impressive coming out of the Montreal series in which they were at a clear speed disadvantage.

If you like desperate hockey, keep a close eye on Chicago's Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg. The two wingers aren't just playing for a Cup, they're battling for their jobs.

With more than $57.5 million committed in salaries to just 14 players next season, and a cap set to top out around $58 million, the Hawks will have to walk the financial plank this summer. As if filling out the empty roster spots isn't challenge enough, they also are looking at resigning RFA goalie Antti Niemi to a sizable raise, along with ensuring that RFA defender Niklas Hjalmarsson returns to the fold.

How to find the cap space? The most likely decision involves burying erstwhile starter Cristobal Huet and his $5.625 salary in the minors, but even that dramatic move won't clear enough room to stock the roster. That means RFA Ladd or Versteeg (who carries a $3.083 million hit for the next two seasons) are the top candidates for relocation while a cheap replacement like Kyle Beach waits in the wings. Both could go, but a standout performance over the next few games from one of them might make it more difficult for GM Stan Bowman to sever the cord.

Why did I pick the Hawks to win the Cup in my series preview? Simple: I don't think Michael Leighton can sustain his level of play. Defenses tend to tighten up in the postseason, so it's not surprising to see that his save percentage has improved. But the leap, from .902 in the regular season to .948 in the playoffs, is staggering, even if it was built against Boston and Montreal, two of the least imposing offenses in the East.

And while the waiver wire castoff element has added some gloss to his story, there are valid reasons why he was shuffled off to the scrap heap. Among them, his battles with inconsistency, especially maintaining his mental focus. He's on his game now, and benefitting from playing behind a group more devoted to his protection than he's ever experienced in the past. But these Hawks boast a deeper, more aggressive offense than what he's faced this spring, and since his success depends on making the first stop and relying on his blueliners to clear the debris, Chicago poses a different kind of danger. Even the slightest dip in his play would put the Flyers in a hole.

Flyers GM Paul Holmgren is getting fat off the acquisition of Leighton, but he also deserves the knowing nod for plucking forward Ville Leino off the salary-bloated roster of the Red Wings. Scooped up as a 24-year-old free agent after being named the 2008 Finnish League MVP, Leino was viewed as a player who could mature into a second line role in Detroit. Under different circumstances, it might have happened, but his struggles to adapt his game to the NHL style, coupled with an overcrowded roster and limited cap space, forced the team to give up on him prematurely. Holmgren jumped at the bargain, giving up only minor leaguer Ole-Kristian Tollefsen and a late-round draft pick.

Leino has hit his stride in the postseason, and where his ability to battle for possession and find open space down low has made him the perfect fit in Peter Laviolette's aggressive forecheck. It also helps that he's found a natural chemistry with linemates Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell after being scratched in the first four games of the playoffs.

"I didn't think he had it in him," a Western Conference executive told SI.com earlier this week. "He's got a lot more snarl in him than he showed in Detroit. He's been a big addition for them."

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