If life indeed begins on opening day, and if Bill Parcells is right when he says that you are what your record says you are, the Chicago Blackhawks had the third-best record in the NHL this season with 112 points, the Flyers were tied for the 18th-best record with 88 points, and we all might as well just save the airfare.
I would posit a different start date, though: December 23, 2009. It was after the firing of Flyers coach John Stevens and after a hellish shakedown cruise at the start of Peter Laviolette's tenure, as he implemented his attacking system and his team got in better shape to play it. Historians will note that the previous day, December 22, practice was cancelled because of a busted sewage pipe at St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. After everyone had a day of easy jokes -- you know: "The Flyers stink so bad, are they sure it was the pipe they were smelling?" -- they began a nice winning stretch until the Olympic break that marked them as one of the top teams in the NHL in that period of time.
Seeing as how the Blackhawks also played great during that stretch, they are not being slighted by using that start date. And seeing as how the NHL has, for years, been all about how you play in the second half of the season, and given the Flyers' unique circumstances, it seems pretty fair and pretty instructive.
Don't get me wrong -- Chicago still wins the comparison. But it ceases to be the difference between the third-best team and the 18th. Instead, it becomes the difference between the team that is No. 2 in points and the team that is No. 7.
Here's the top of the list, since December 23:
1) Washington 71, 2) Chicago 63, 3) San Jose 62, T4) Detroit, Vancouver, Phoenix 61, 7) Flyers, Carolina 56, T9) Ottawa, Los Angeles 54, T11) Nashville, St. Louis, Buffalo 53, 14) Anaheim 52, T15) New Jersey, Monteal 51, T15) Pittsburgh, Boston, New York Rangers 50.
You look at the list, and isn't all that predictive in some cases. Lack of predictability is what makes the tournament great. But in calculating what's really an upset, and the magnitude of an upset, this is probably a better guide than the regular-season standings. It suggests that, after Washington, the Flyers -- even with all of their struggles, and their goaltending injuries, and their loss of leading scorer Jeff Carter for a stretch -- were the next-best team in the NHL Eastern Conference over nearly the last 50 games. So even though the Flyers' road was dizzying, those standings suggest that their survival is not the shock that it sometimes seems to be.
All of which means that the Blackhawks deserve to be favorites here, but not in any prohibitive sense. If you look at the team' records against the top 10 teams in these revised standings you see that Chicago played a ton more games against the best teams -- 16, compared to only 7 for the Flyers. The Blackhawks got 56 percent of the available points against those top 10 teams, the Flyers got 57 percent. Chicago clearly was more battle-tested. But after the last 6 weeks, does that matter anymore?