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Hawks end drought as TV ratings skyrocket


By Dan Di Sciullo
NHL Editor


Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - For the first time since the days of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, the Chicago Blackhawks have delivered the Windy City a championship.

The 2009-10 Blackhawks will have their name etched on Lord Stanley's Cup after a highly entertaining final round against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Chicago's first title since 1961 was not just a great development for Blackhawks fans, but the Stanley Cup Finals also turned out to be a TV ratings bonanza for the NHL in the United States.

After the Blackhawks clinched the title Wednesday with an overtime victory in Game 6, it was revealed that the NHL saw its best ratings for a Stanley Cup Finals contest since 1974. The final game of the 2009-10 season was watched by 8.28 million viewers -- a 43-percent increase from last year's Game 6 between Pittsburgh and Detroit. Wednesday's viewers were also greater than the eight million who watched last year's decisive Game 7.

The numbers are great news for the NHL, of course, but the Cup Finals matchup did work in the league's favor. We'd probably be talking about how poor the TV ratings were if Montreal and San Jose happened to meet in this year's final.

Chicago and Philadelphia are both major media markets and both cities' fan bases were desperate to win another hockey title. Fortunately for Hawks fans, their drought ends at 49 years, while Philadelphia still hasn't tasted the ultimate victory since 197. The snake-bitten Flyers are now 0-6 in the Cup Finals since that last championship.

Along with those notable elements, here are some other storylines from a closely contested and highly entertaining Cup Finals.

TOEWS WINS SMYTHE

Jonathan Toews lead Chicago with 29 points this postseason.
Those who questioned whether Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews truly deserved the NHL's playoff MVP award certainly have a case. Toews did lead Chicago with 29 points this postseason, and even though the Conn Smythe is awarded to the best player throughout the playoffs, usually the winner is a player who shines in the Cup Finals as well. Toews certainly did not stand out in the final round, posting just three assists and playing to a minus-five rating over the six games. His best work came in the faceoff circle, where the Flyers simply did not have an answer for the quick-handed centerman.

Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp both had better final rounds and wound up with 28 and 22 points, respectively, during the playoffs. Kane also scored the series-clinching goal in overtime of Game 6, and he recorded three goals and eight points in the Finals after going pointless in the first two games of the series.

Still, it's hard to complain about Toews winning the Smythe. He may not have finished as strong as Kane, but he was the best player throughout the Western Conference playoffs, and that's what impressed voters the most in the end.

HOSSA CURSED NO MORE

Nobody was as relieved as Marian Hossa to finally lift Lord Stanley's Cup. Of course, the Slovakian star was a member of the Penguins in 2008 when they lost in six games to Detroit, and was on the Red Wings last spring when they were defeated by Pittsburgh in seven games. When he signed a big free agent deal with Chicago in the summer, many joked that it meant the Blackhawks were assured of a runner-up finish in this year's Cup Finals.

By jumping ship from Pittsburgh to the winning team following the 2007-08 season, Hossa became an outlaw in the Steel City. He doesn't have many fans in Detroit either, considering he left for the Red Wings' divisional rival this past summer. So, it's fair to call Hossa a mercenary, but it was nice to actually see him lift the Cup. It probably would've been even better for Hossa if he was able to add more than three goals and 15 points towards Chicago's playoff run, but he did have a solid Finals and gave Philadelphia's defense fits at times.

I consider the reasons that folks are turned off by Hossa to be valid, but have a heart, people. Schadenfreude is a fun hobby, but Hossa is really only guilty of wanting to go to the places where he can win. What's so wrong about that?

REDEMPTION FOR BRIERE

Flyers forward Danny Briere entered this spring's playoffs as a poster boy for bad contracts, but a superb postseason went a long way towards rehabilitating his image. Briere led all NHLers with 30 points (12 goals, 18 assists) in the playoffs and set a Philadelphia record for most points in a single postseason. He also had 12 points in the last round alone, falling one point shy of Wayne Gretzky's record for most ever in the Cup Finals.

Despite all that, Briere's contract remains a concern. This is the salary cap era and the 31-year-old Briere, who is signed through 2014-15, needs to pick it up in the regular season over the next five years to justify his annual $6.5 million cap hit. He has played in just 104 games over the last two regular seasons, and totaled 37 goals and 78 points in those contests. In order to truly live up to his deal, Briere needs to regain the form he displayed in 2006-07, when he posted 95 points in his final season with the Buffalo Sabres.

Perhaps, a full season playing on a line with Ville Leino and Scott Hartnell will allow Briere to gain some level of consistency for the Flyers. That line was one of the best units in this year's playoffs, and it will be interesting to see if next year the trio can pick up where it left off in the postseason.

LEIGHTON THE ANSWER FOR FLYERS?

For a while this postseason, it seemed that the Flyers had solved the franchise's perennial goaltending problem. That is, until Michael Leighton turned in a poor Cup Finals. Leighton was pulled twice against Chicago in the final round, and Kane's OT game-winner that clinched the Cup was so soft, that at first nobody besides Kane, and most likely Leighton, knew that it was in the net.

My guess is that the Flyers, who already have Brian Boucher signed for next year, will bring Leighton - a midseason waiver-wire acquisition - back for at least another year. After all, the journeyman may have made himself some money with his play early in the spring, but Leighton still doesn't have the resume of a No. 1 NHL netminder and won't command an outrageous salary when he hits the free agent market this summer. Combine that fact with Philadelphia's recent history of going for the cheap option in net, and Leighton will probably be wearing Orange & Black next season.

Just don't expect the Flyers to commit to Leighton for more than two years. Despite his strong play in the regular season and most of the playoffs for Philadelphia, it's hard to believe Flyers GM Paul Holmgren will think of Leighton as much more than a stop-gap.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.
Dan Di Sciullo