Ed Snider has owned the Philadelphia Flyers since they joined the league in 1967 and has seen just about everything there is to see in the NHL in that time.
And yet he was marveling after the Flyers won the Eastern Conference championship and the right to face off with the Chicago Blackhawks for the Stanley Cup. Only three seasons after they were both bottom feeders and had the first and second picks in the draft.
"These were the two teams with the worst record in the league," Snider said. "Patrick Kane was picked by them, JVR [James Van Riemsdyk] was picked by us and now we're in the Stanley Cup Finals. It's incredible."
In many ways the Stanley Cup Final that begins Saturday night is incredible, but as much as anything, because it matches two teams that have reached the pinnacle with very short turnaround times. In part that's because of parity that exists in the salary-capped league today, but in this instance, some sharp management has been a bigger common denominator.
So if the Flyers and Blackhawks have gotten here from slightly different roads, their formulas have been essentially the same. Pretty basic too, involving drafting well for a few years, developing young assets and then leveraging them into cap space necessary to add critical pieces at key times.
In Philadelphia's case, general manager Paul Holmgren had to blow up a veteran roster first to effect the changes that brought the Flyers through these playoffs, remarkably after sneaking in on the final day of the season.
In Chicago, it required the passing of an iconic and ultimately detrimental owner to trigger a turnaround that allowed former GM Dale Tallon to make the most of the wealth of young talent he had drafted.
Tallon is in Florida now so he won't get to see many of those talents who will be on display in this series, but the only thing that matters now is that one of these teams will get to break a really long Stanley Cup drought.
For the Blackhawks the dry spell goes back to the time JFK was a rookie president. The days of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita and a six-team league. Philadelphia's isn't quite that bad, but 35 years is a generation even if there are still deep ties in Philadelphia to the Broad Street Bullies days.
|Stanley Cup Finals schedule|
|May 29||at Chicago||8 p.m.|
|May 31||at Chicago||8 p.m.|
|June 2||at Philadelphia||8 p.m.|
|June 4||at Philadelphia||8 p.m.|
|June 6||at Chicago-*||8 p.m.|
|June 9||at Philadelphia-*||8 p.m.|
|June 11||at Chicago-*||8 p.m.|
|All times ET; *-if necessary|
Still the excitement there now is purely for this version of the Flyers, a team that was supposed to be built for the playoffs but was sitting 14th in the Eastern Conference in December, a couple of weeks after Peter Laviolette was hired to replace John Stevens as coach. The Flyers went 2-7-1 in their first 10 games with Laviolette as the new coach moved to make the team more aggressive and high tempo, but things eventually clicked. Now the team that was built for the playoffs is actually peaking at the right time.
"Our first eight to 10 games under Peter weren't pretty," defenseman Chris Pronger said. "I don't think we were I don't necessarily think ready is the right word.
"We had to grasp it and understand it and play to a higher level. It's an intense system and we needed to get into that rhythm. We all needed to learn it, and understand it so it became second nature, and you didn't have to think out on the ice. We went through stages where we looked like we were grasping it, and fell asleep at times. Now we seem to be firing on all cylinders."
Pronger is one of the big reasons. The Flyers paid a high price to get Pronger in a trade before the season, and to this point he has been the missing piece. Philadelphia already had a lot of scoring power with Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne, Danny Briere and a strong defense with Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn. But Pronger is one of the NHL's few truly imposing presences and he has been a force through these playoffs with nearly 30 minutes of game time each night.
Against the Blackhawks, Pronger will have his hands full with the man-mountain Dustin Byfuglien, the 257-pound human traffic jam. Byfuglien strength is obviously in his strength, but he has become a clutch scorer in these playoffs playing on a line with Kane and captain Jonathan Toews. And when he's not scoring himself, Byfuglien is creating space for his linemates, two of the top three point getters in these playoffs.
|Chris Pronger (20) scored the winning goal for the Flyers in the regular-season meeting. (AP)|
The Blackhawks are the fastest team in the league and their speed has been too much for anyone to handle so far. But the Flyers can also skate as well as finish their checks harder and more often than Chicago's Western Conference foes. Philadelphia has scoring balance across three lines as well, with youngsters Claude Giroux and Ville Leino making important contributions. Matt Carle also has put up good numbers from the blue line and has proven to be a good partner for Pronger, while goalie Michael Leighton has been one of the playoffs' top stories.
On paper, this reads like a mismatch between a No. 2 seed in Chicago and a No. 7 seed with Philadelphia, both with good special teams and led by heart-and-soul type captains in Richards and Toews. Either might very well end up as the playoff MVP if their team wins.
Or even if they don't. That's how little separates these teams right now. In fact, in their only meeting the Flyers won a one-goal game when Pronger scored with two seconds left in the third period.
The lost point cost Chicago the West title and home ice through the conference round, but it hasn't really mattered because the Blackhawks have gone 7-0 on the road and have home ice advantage anyway. That never hurts when you've turned on a city the way the Blackhawks have in Chicago.
"It turned out OK," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said.
For both teams.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 7.