Kane, Van Riemsdyk share bond as they go for Cup
AP Sports Writer
CHICAGO (AP) – Three years ago, a pingpong ball took a fortuitous bounce for the Chicago Blackhawks, almost like a sliding puck, and they came out winners in a lottery that has revived the franchise.
With just little more than an 8 percent chance of winning the top pick in 2007, the Blackhawks were able to leapfrog the team with the worst record, the Philadelphia Flyers, and they made Patrick Kane their No. 1 choice.
Kane went to Chicago and became the rookie of the year, while the Flyers took James van Riemsdyk with the second pick. Now both players are in the Stanley Cup finals, facing each other with Game 1 set for Saturday night at the United Center.
“It seems like it’s almost worked out good for both teams,” Kane said. “They’re here three years later. I’m here three years later, our team is, and that’s the most important thing for this franchise.”
The Blackhawks are searching for their first title since the days of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita in 1961. The Flyers are looking for their first championship since the Broad Street Bullies socked their way to the second of back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 1975 – long before Kane or van Riemsdyk, both 21, were born.
The two played together in the world juniors and remain close. They went to dinner when the Blackhawks were in Philadelphia for their only meeting with the Flyers this season. Now comes a shot at the Cup.
“You never know what could have happened. I think going into that draft, the Blackhawks were like fifth to last place or whatever you want to call it at that time,” Kane said. “So it was kind of a shocker they got the first overall pick. … To be honest with you, I was kind of excited when Chicago got it.”
Kane headed right to the NHL after he was selected No. 1 and quickly emerged as a star, a consistent scoring threat with his speed and puck handling skills. Van Riemsdyk took a different route, heading off to college first and then signing with the Flyers a little more than a year ago.
“We were both put in different situations and we were in different stages of our hockey development and, you know, I did what I thought was best for me to be a better player,” van Riemsdyk said. “He was obviously ready to make that jump right after the draft. He’s done a good job for himself.”
And for his team. The Blackhawks were playing before a half-empty arena before Kane and 22-year-old captain Jonathan Toews arrived and became the centerpieces of the team’s rebirth on the ice and the accompanying marketing campaign.
Now the Blackhawks are one of the hottest tickets in Chicago, a young team that made it to the Western Conference finals a year ago before losing to Detroit.
Winning four more games will be a challenge against a Flyers team also considered a championship contender entering the season before it had to make a remarkable run to get to the finals for the first time since 1997.
The Flyers withstood a coaching change from John Stevens to Peter Laviolette, injuries to key players like Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter, and needed a shootout win on the final day of the season just to get in the postseason.
After disposing of New Jersey in the opening round, they staged one of the greatest comebacks in league history, rallying from 0-3 in the series and 0-3 in Game 7 to oust the Boston Bruins, with van Riemsdyk scoring Philly’s first goal to spark the comeback. The Flyers took out giant-killer Montreal in a five-game Eastern Conference finals.
“It’s been an unbelievable journey so far,” defenseman Kimmo Timonen said.
Chicago beat Vancouver and San Jose in their last two playoff series, high-flying affairs and fast skating and numerous scoring chances. The Blackhawks beat Nashville in the first round and will face that same kind of stingy defense with the Flyers, led by defensemen Chris Pronger, Timonen, Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle.
Toews leads all players in the postseason with 26 points, five more than his counterpart and Olympic teammate, gritty Flyers captain Mike Richards. Danny Briere of the Flyers has 18 points, including nine goals, and Kane has 20 points. Former Flyers player Patrick Sharp has blossomed into a steady scorer for Chicago since being traded nearly five years ago. The Blackhawks are hoping to play forward Andrew Ladd, who was injured in the clincher over San Jose and has not been able to practice this week.
Two goalies no one expected to see in the postseason have shone. The well-traveled Michael Leighton, who started his career with Chicago, has been a rock in the postseason since taking over in Game 5 against Boston when Brian Boucher hurt his knee. He is 6-1 and had three shutouts against the Canadiens.
And where would the Blackhawks be without Antti Niemi, the 26-year-old first-year goalie out of Finland? After becoming the starter for good in March, he is 12-4 in the playoffs and is a cool-headed factor in the Blackhawks’ first appearance in the finals since 1992.
“Maybe you don’t see the whole picture the way you should take the pressure. You’re just happy to be there and doing your best and you will have more energy,” Niemi said.
Some of the biggest Blackhawks goals have come from the biggest player on the ice, 257-pound Dustin Byfuglien, who has four game-winners in his eight goals.
A matchup between him and the 220-pound Pronger, long one of the game’s nastiest defenseman, could be must-see hockey.
“I don’t know if we look forward to that. It’s certainly something that’s going to have to happen,” Laviolette said. “When you get somebody of his size – and Chicago has done a good job of creating havoc in front of the opposition’s net – there’s been a lot of tipped pucks, second opportunities, rebound goals.”
Chicago’s Joel Quenneville, who coached Pronger in St. Louis, is making his first appearance in the finals as a head coach. Growing up in Ontario, the Blackhawks were his favorite team.
The 51-year-old Quenneville was a tot himself the last time the Blackhawks were champions and he has envisioned what another title would mean.
“I think that it would be … great achievement for everybody,” Quennville said. “I think the city will go wild and crazy.”