Phil Sheridan: The pressure mounts for both teams

Posted: May 28, 2010

CHICAGO - The official media-day hoodies were carefully tailored. You could barely see the history pressing down on the shoulders of the Flyers and the Blackhawks.

For the men in the orange sweatshirts, the number is 35. Three-and-a-half decades since the last Stanley Cup championship. The names are Clarke and Parent and Barber.

For the men in black, the number is even bigger. It has been 49 years since the Chicago Black Hawks - two words then, just one now - won their last Cup. The names tossed at the impossibly young Chicago stars are Hull and Mikita.

When a franchise's most recent champions could be the grandparents of its current players, the pressure to win is exponentially greater. It just is.

And pressure will play a role in how the Finals turn out. It always does. It will be a matter of who responds better, who embraces the moment and who is cowed by it.

Looked at one way, there is more pressure on the Flyers. They got to this point by the most irregular route. They qualified for the final open playoff berth by beating the New York Rangers in a shoot-out on the last day of the season. After an impressive opening-round victory over New Jersey, they fell behind Boston, three games to none. The Flyers came back from that, then dominated Montreal in a five-game series.

So they are here, in their first Finals in 13 years. For individual players, it is the first time playing for the Cup in 12 years (Danny Briere, Kimmo Timonen), 10 years (Simon Gagne) and 15 years (Ian Laperriere).

"That's something we're definitely going to have to talk about," Gagne said. "I've been here 10 years. I get close twice. I never had a chance to be here. You understand how hard it is to get where we are. Who knows, it might be the last chance of all the guys here. You never know."

That's always true. It is as true of the Blackhawks as it is of the Flyers. But Chicago has the feel of a young team on the brink of a long run of success. The Flyers have the feel of a team that needed an awful lot to go right this one time.

When this wild and fantastic run is over, whether the Flyers skate off with the Cup or not, they are going to start next season in the same conference as Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Thanks to Montreal, the Flyers were able to reach the Finals without facing either Pittsburgh or Washington.

Think back to 2008. When the Phillies went into the postseason, their fiercest competition figured to come from the Chicago Cubs in the National League and the Yankees or Red Sox in the American. But the Dodgers upset the Cubs and Tampa Bay dispatched the AL powerhouses.

If the Phillies hadn't capitalized on that alignment of the stars, there's no telling what might have happened. Maybe they beat the Cubs and the Yankees. Maybe Philadelphia's championship drought continues, making last year's World Series loss to New York truly unbearable.

The Flyers have had as many bad breaks, in terms of injuries, as good breaks. They have earned every bit of this opportunity. It's just that they can't count on things falling this way again any time soon. That could make the pressure greater on them.

The flip side is that, as favorites, there is more riding on the Blackhawks. They are a phenomenon in a town where hockey was pronounced dead just a few years ago. The franchise has done quite a job of turning things around, building an exciting young team and creating an enormous buzz in Chicago. It doesn't hurt the Hawks that the Bulls, Cubs and White Sox have yielded the spotlight to them.

"Given that it's been since '61," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said, "it would be pretty special to be able to do that. We've got an entire city behind us. We feel like this is the year for us."

That's a different kind of pressure, the kind that consumed the Eagles in home NFC championship games against Tampa Bay and Carolina.

"You get more pressure when you're supposed to win," Gagne said, "instead of being underdogs, when you like to make a surprise. I've been on the other side and I know it's a lot of pressure. It's almost like everybody's expecting you to win and you've got no choice. We like to be underdogs."

Thursday's media day event was slow torture for the players. They are ready, after several days off, to stop talking and start skating.

"We're just trying not to get too jacked up and ready to play when the game is not until Saturday night," Toews said.

Meanwhile, the pressure mounts and the weight under those hoodies becomes that much harder to hide.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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