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No matter who it is, the Stanley Cup winner will be a worthy victor

CHICAGO -- Every day, people from all across the world make the trip out to Madison Street in Chicago -- sometimes alone, sometimes by the busload. They make the 10-minute detour out of the city center just to see a statue of the world's most famous basketball player frozen in time, in that iconic pose with a ball in his right hand and his legs leaping, giving the illusion that he's flying through thin air.

But what those who made the trek to the United Center on the eve of the Stanley Cup finals saw was the Windy City being swept up in Blackhawks Fever. They saw Michael Jordan's statue outfitted in skates and a helmet, wearing the red jersey of Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. If they went back to Michigan Avenue, they saw flagpoles carrying the red flags with the iconic logo. Storefronts around the city are packed with the team's merchandise. Like MJ, the lions outside the Art Institute of Chicago have been fitted for helmets (with visors); a dinosaur outside of the Field Museum is wearing a jersey, too. All are reminders of championship hopes on the horizon.

"Sometimes it almost feels like you're too young to really know what's going on," 21-year-old Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane says about all the hype and attention surrounding his team the last few weeks. "You really gotta take the opportunity and enjoy it and soak it all in. ... [But] you just want to get into it and start playing."

Now, after five days of dissecting matchups, thinking over strategy, trying to verbalize the excitement of their teams and their cities, the Blackhawks and Flyers can finally quit talking and get out on the ice. And when the final whistle blows, whenever that may be over the next two weeks, it is certain to be an historic event.

See, it turns out the NHL's "History Will Be Made" ads -- those old-timey videos that run iconic highlights backwards -- weren't just clever (and easily parodied) marketing ploys. History will, in fact, be made one way or the other. If the Blackhawks take a turn with the Cup, it'll be the first in 49 years, the league's longest active Stanley Cup drought. And if the East's No. 7 Flyers lift it, they'll be the lowest-seeded champs ever.

No matter the final victor, there will be a worthy winner at the end of the line. The Blackhawks, who have excelled all season, are led by a young core that includes Toews, Kane and defensemen Duncan Keith, a Norris Trophy favorite who showed playoff hockey heart when he lost seven teeth in Game 4 against the Sharks last week. With salary-cap concerns looming in their near future, the Blackhawks know the depth they boast won't last forever; this year will certainly be their best shot.

The Flyers have traveled a far less gilded path this season, underachieving for months as turmoil in the team led to rampant losing, a coaching change and playing for survival the last month of the season. But even slated as underdogs from Round 1, the Flyers never quit. They've been throwing convention out of the window all postseason, handily dismissing the Devils in five, before pulling off the ultimate comeback against the Bruins. The Flyers won't quit, which should make this finals matchup worth the wait, and it may not take too long before the hate begins to build.

"The weird part is we don't know much about the 'Hawks," says Philadelphia forward Danny Briere. "We've seen them once a long time ago ... [So] right now, everybody's nice to each other. I can't wait until it feels like this is going now and there's no love anymore."

Now, that sounds like a Flyer. The physicality of this series won't be a question. With a 257-pound weight by the name of Dustin Byfuglien sure to be parked in front of Philadelphia goalie Michael Leighton, and a 6-foot-7 defensive powerhouse named ChrisPronger assured to play big minutes, it might be difficult to find any open ice out there. In the leadup to the series, this potential Byfuglien-Pronger clash has been dubbed the marquee matchup. (Though in actuality, I think the best duel of the series will be: The deafening cheers during the national anthem at the United Center vs. the stirring Kate Smith rendition of God Bless America at the Wach. Now that's a great matchup, but I digress.) For Prong-Buff to play out, it will require the Blackhawks to get the puck inside, which hasn't particularly been a problem so far, but the Flyers have been playing aggressively in their own zone throughout the playoffs and have successfully forced sublime scorers to play from the outside. With the Blackhawks having had so much success from within 10 feet of the goal, this area will be where the series is won or lost.

But there we go, talking about matchups and strategies again. It's sort of unavoidable, what with the five days of buildup in between. But enough already. There's been enough chatter; now it's time to play puck.

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