Predicting a Chicago Blackhawks-Philadelphia Flyers Stanley Cup final back in October was actually not a puzzling, how-did-we-get-here-from-there sort of stretch.
The Flyers were a preseason darling because they'd battled the eventual 2009 champion Pittsburgh Penguins so well in the opening round the year before in a riveting Battle of Pennsylvania, and bulked up in the summer with playoff-tested blueliner Chris Pronger.
The big question mark was the new No. 1 man in goal, Ray Emery, recently repatriated from Russia's Continental Hockey League. Philadelphia always had a reputation for going light on goalies (Pelle Lindbergh and Ron Hextall were probably the last impact netminders they'd drafted and developed). More often that not, Philadelphia was found wanting at that position.
It turns out the Flyers had the right idea - this year anyway. Save in net, spend elsewhere turned out to be not just their mantra for success, it was a formula that worked all around the NHL - this year anyway.
Even so, things looked grim for the Flyers around Christmas, when they had a three-day break to digest turkey and the realization they were in a three-way tie for second-last in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers. Each had 34 points (only the Carolina Hurricanes were worse).
But the Flyers had already changed coaches - bringing Peter Laviolette in from the TSN analysts panel - and, eventually, his message about playing the game with a greater tempo sunk in.
Meanwhile, Emery had season-ending surgery, Michael Leighton was plucked off waivers and Brian Boucher had a good run at the start of the playoffs. After a crazy roller-coaster season, magically, here they are - where a lot of experts imagined that they would be eight months ago.
They say a journey strewn with potholes sometimes toughens up a team and the Flyers are living proof that can indeed happen.
From Christmas until the Vancouver Olympic break, Philadelphia gained 18 more points than Toronto and 23 more than Edmonton, leaving both in the dust. The Flyers were sixth in the Eastern Conference at that juncture, and later held onto a playoff berth despite a hard push from the New York Rangers on the final day of the season.
Chicago? Well, Chicago was a sexy choice, too.
The only question was if the Blackhawks would take that half-step backward the way so many emerging young teams do, just as they're reaching championship potential. They didn't - thanks to a firm hand from head coach Joel Quenneville, inspired leadership from captain Jonathan Toews, the most consistent defence pair in the league (Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook), plus the emergence of unexpected help between the pipes (Antti Niemi).
On some levels, the teams are mirror images of one another.
Toews's counterpart with the Flyers is Mike Richards, two players whose maturity level belie their relative youth; 'Hawks winger Patrick Kane's is Jeff Carter, two skilled goal scorers and playmakers. There is accomplished secondary scoring (Daniel Brière, Simon Gagné for the Flyers, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp for the Blackhawks); there are big, imposing physical specimens (Pronger on the Flyers blueline, while the Blackhawks have one of the more unique players in the NHL in Dustin Byfuglien, a 257-pound net-front presence, who has scored four game-winners in these playoffs).
Philly has had a series of remarkable wins these past two months: First, to qualify for the playoffs in a shootout on the final day of the regular season, and second, to eliminate the Boston Bruins in seven games after being down 3-0.
Chicago's test came early, when they dropped two of three to the Nashville Predators. Since then, the Blackhawks have pretty much cruised, finding ways to win games in which they weren't necessarily the better team.
Toews is on a mission - 13 games in a row with a point, leading the NHL postseason in scoring, picking up where he left off in the 2010 Olympics where he had a chance to watch many of the NHL's great captains in action. (When Toews became the Blackhawks captain, he received a text message from Pittsburgh leader Sidney Crosby congratulating him.)
Toews said he's never actually discussed what it takes to be a good captain with Crosby or anyone else, but noted you can learn a lot just from watching and paying attention.
"When you're on a team, like Team Canada, I can't remember how many captains were in that room, but you definitely kind of get a sense of what kind of leader a guy like Sidney is, or Jarome Iginla, just by talking to them, getting to know them, [and seeing]how they affect their teammates in the locker room," Toews said. "You don't really have to talk to them directly to find that out."
With the Blackhawks currently on an 11-2 run, Toews has been a lot like Crosby was last year, on and off the ice. He's not getting too many breaks from the podium or the dressing room scrums.
"Every game is so stressful, it's tough to go to sleep at night thinking about it," he said the other day. "But, yeah, we're enjoying the moment. It's been a heck of a ride so far. We want to keep going."