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Blackhawks just four wins from making history
By Tim Sassone | Daily Herald Staff

Workman place a logo on the ice in preparation for the NHL hockey Stanley Cup finals between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Chicago Blackhawks, in Philadelphia, Friday.


Associated Press

The Blackhawks' Patrick Kane watches his teammates play during practice, Friday in Chicago.


Associated Press

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Published: 5/29/2010 12:18 AM

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For many of the Blackhawks, this is the moment they've been preparing for their whole lives.

The Hawks are set to play for the Stanley Cup, the holy grail of hockey, starting tonight with Game 1 of the Finals against the Philadelphia Flyers at the United Center.

"I've played this thing a thousand times on the street and now it's for real, so I better be ready," Hawks right wing Kris Versteeg said.

What was unimaginable just a few years ago when the Hawks were out of sight and out of mind in their own town and the butt of jokes everywhere you turned, is now a reality.

The Hawks are four wins away from a championship.

"My mom and sister were just in town and we were talking, we can't believe I'm going to be playing in this," Hawks winger Adam Burish said. "It's something everybody watches. It hasn't sunk in yet that we're here."

Standing in the way of the Hawks winning their first Stanley Cup in 49 years is a Flyers club that believes it is a team of destiny.

The Flyers had only 88 points during the regular season - 24 fewer than the Hawks - and needed to win in a shootout on the final day just to make the playoffs.

Then in the second round against Boston, the Flyers were down 3-0 in games before rallying to win the series. They won Game 7 on the road after falling behind 3-0.

"It's unfinished business," Flyers veteran winger Simon Gagne said. "Yeah, we're happy with what we accomplished so far, but we still want more. We want the big trophy at the end."

This will be the biggest test yet for both teams.

The Flyers haven't seen a team as deep or as fast or as skilled as the Hawks, while Philadelphia has a deeper offense and strong and a far more mobile defensemen than San Jose, Vancouver or Nashville.

In Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn, the Flyers have four defensemen who figure to make it tougher around the net for Hawks such as Dustin Byfuglien and Jonathan Toews to do what they did without much resistance against the Sharks and Canucks.

"They've got a big team over there," Byfuglien said. "It's not going to be an easy battle. But that's something I think as a team we're going to be ready to match up."

While there is plenty of talk of the Flyers being bigger and more physical than the Hawks, those people haven't been watching the playoffs very closely. The Hawks have met every physical challenge thrown their way, and then some.

There are no questions about the Hawks' grit anymore.

"I know Philly likes to play tough and I think we've got some big hitters on our team too," Patrick Kane said. "We're a physical team, too. It's going to be a physical series. Both teams are fighting for the ultimate prize and I'm sure they'll be real intense games."

With the teams so similar in many ways it could be a series decided by goaltenders Antti Niemi and Michael Leighton, and by special teams.

"We're going to have to play exceptional defense against them and try not to get into a track meet with them," Flyers captain Mike Richards said. "If you look on paper the teams are very evenly matched with the same sort of design of players.

"It's going to come down to who plays the most consistent for the longest."

The Hawks certainly realize what's at stake for them. They've been one of the best teams in the NHL all season and now it's time to put a stamp on what would be the greatest year in franchise history.

"I think we're ready for this," defenseman Brian Campbell said.

"Sometimes it's tough not to get too amped up," Kane said. "You've got to settle yourself down. I think I'm more excited than nervous. I don't think you can be nervous at a time like this. We're all ready to play."

Not to finish the job now would be devastating for the Hawks, but coach Joel Quenneville sees a confident group that has learned a lot about themselves along the way since April.

"I think as we progress this year in the playoffs, that's kind of been the theme around our team, that we can't be satisfied with where we're at," Quenneville said. "We're looking for more.

"We've grown each and every round. It seems like there's been some progress in that area. That's kind of what the message is going into (Game 1): We want to get better. We want to improve. I think our group still has another level."

The Hawks don't plan on holding anything back.

"This is the Finals and you just have to go out there and let it rip," Burish said. "Who knows if we're going to get this chance again."