Tuesday June 8th, 2010

What do I believe? I believe Vince Gilligan is God's gift to television. I believe the new Sleigh Bells record is getting far more critical acclaim than it deserves but, taken on its own merits, isn't half bad. And I really, really believe I need to get a new photo for the top of this column.

Here are seven more things I'm fundamentally certain of heading into Wednesday night's Game Six of the Stanley Cup Final:

1. Not to take anything away from the staggering collection of offensive talent on display in this series, or to shift all the blame away from some seriously weak defensive efforts, but there's one key reason why we've seen 40 goals scored through the first five games: lousy goaltending. Quite likely the worst ever put on display in a Cup final. Michael Leighton -- he of the .867 save percentage -- has looked every inch the waiver wire pickup in this series, allowing massive rebounds and all but installing blinking "Shoot Here" targets between his wickets and over his glove hand. Don't think for a moment, though, that we'll see Brian Boucher get the call on Wednesday. Peter Laviolette has decided to keep the name of his starter to himself, but really has no choice other than go back to Leighton even after he allowed three goals on just 13 shots in Game 5.

At least the Flyers are not up against a lights-out stopper at the other end of the ice. Antti Niemi hasn't exactly outplayed Leighton to this point. Four times in this series Niemi has allowed the Flyers to answer a Hawks goal within a two-minute span. Four other times, he's given up a goal within the first or last minute of a period, including that inexcusable Scott Hartnell strike 32 seconds into the second period on Sunday. In fact, the result of that pivotal fifth game could easily have been reversed if the Flyers hadn't failed to capitalize on a couple more of Niemi's positioning miscues.

It was less than two weeks ago that some pundits were suggesting that the early exit of some of the game's top stoppers (Ryan Miller, Martin Brodeur, Ilya Bryzgalov, Roberto Luongo) and the success of mediocre types like Leighton, Boucher and Niemi demonstrated that high-end goaltending was no longer a prerequisite for a championship squad. Apparently that's only true when the guy at the other end is just as inept.

2. The quiet blessing from a series that's featured 40 goals scored? Neither team uses Gary Glitter's Rock and Roll, Part 2 as its celebration song.

3. There's been a lot of muttering about the subpar play of Jeff Carter (one empty net goal and a minus-five rating in the series). Judging by his skating, he's nowhere near 100 percent after returning from the foot injury he suffered in the opening round against New Jersey. But as much as the Flyers could use a timely goal or two from their leading scorer, I don't think offense is the key to Philly surviving Game 6. Instead, the Flyers need to focus on a better defensive effort. They were ground up by waves of unrelenting pressure generated by Chicago's revamped forward units. a result that made it clear that Philly can't roll lines with the Hawks. The Flyers can, however, grind with the best of them and that's the kind of effort they'll need to prolong the series. Hard on the forecheck, win more battles along the boards, muck up the neutral zone, slow down the Hawks in transition. For the Flyers to win, it has to be will over skill.

4. Twice now in these playoffs, Flyers captain Mike Richards has suggested that his team was too cocky heading into a game in which it was blown out. Both of those losses were marked by brutal performances by Chris Pronger (minus-3 in a 5-1 loss to Montreal and minus-5 in Game 5 vs. the Hawks). All those minuses are a tribute to the five Flyers on the ice, not just Pronger, but I'm having a hard time thinking that the timing and choice of the term "cocky" was purely coincidental. I'm guessing that it's a not-so-subtle reprimand that will -- along being posterized on that Dustin Byfuglien hit -- ensure a clear-headed and focused effort from No. 20 on Wednesday. Shouldn't surprise anyone if Pronger emerges as the first star.

5. Has there ever been a better performance by a guy with a minus-3 in his stat line than the one authored by Marian Hossa on Sunday? That right there was the perfect argument for why that stat has to be taken in context. Hossa was consistently dynamic on both sides of the puck, a force on special teams, and he displayed terrific chemistry with new linemate Jonathan Toews. For my money, he was the best Hawks forward in the contest. Think he'll be motivated to end his three-year wait for the Cup on Wednesday?

6. In terms of sheer entertainment value, Daniel Carcillo would be a wonderful addition to the Flyers' lineup in Game 6. In terms of hockey value, it's better that he wears Armani instead of orange on Wednesday night. No question there's an argument to be made for shaking up the roster, but the energy and passion he'd bring to the ice are the two qualities that should be in abundant supply with Philly's season on the line. Carcillo was a liability in Game 3, unable to play with mental or physical discipline. With so little upside, it just doesn't make sense to put the team at risk of one of his meltdowns.

7. Byfuglien is being showered with praise for his four-point, nine-hit effort in Game 5, but Pronger was right: Big Buff was able to come up with those results because he was so well rested after the first four games. If I'm Chicago GM Stan Bowman, I accept any and all postseason phone calls regarding the availability of Byfuglien. That doesn't mean I actively look to trade the surprise star of the playoffs, but smart asset management suggests the wisdom of considering offers for a player when his value is at its highest. Byfuglien has emerged as a unique and valuable commodity this spring, but he's also a player whose career best is 19 goals and 36 points...and that was two years ago. He's a bigger, less motivated Tomas Holmstrom, not the next Todd Bertuzzi, so if Bowman has someone on the line convinced that he is the second coming of Big Bert, well, the GM has to at least weigh his options. Maybe the right offer doesn't come along, but with cap space at a premium, a clever move would both clear room and help the Hawks reload for the future.

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