Best of the West fill out its final four
With all due respect to the Phoenix Coyotes – the No. 4 seed in the West when the playoffs began – the best four teams have reached the conference semifinals and what a dogfight it should be to narrow the field to two teams in Round 2.
It basically breaks down like this: There’s the two-time defending conference champion Detroit Red Wings, who have weathered playing the last game of the year each of the past two seasons and a trip to Europe to begin the 2009-10 campaign. There’s the San Jose Sharks, the team forecast to either make the Stanley Cup final for at least the past three seasons in many corners.
There’s the Chicago Blackhawks, the team that could very easily be the next power in the league. No one would be surprised to see the young and cocky ’Hawks win the West. And there’s the Vancouver Canucks, led by a great goaltender, the best identical twins to ever play at the NHL level and definitely more than a sleeper in the conference.
Both second-round matchups are intriguing because of recent history between the teams. Detroit is portrayed as having a mental advantage over San Jose, which had the Wings three years ago and let them off the hook. The Sharks have a long history of having very little regular-season success in Joe Louis Arena, too.
The Canucks and Blackhawks battled for six games in this round last season, Chicago rallying from a 2-1 deficit to win the last three games. It was a nasty series, and Vancouver went public suggesting it wanted to meet Chicago again this postseason. Wish granted.
The regular season doesn’t mean much, but the fact is these are four 100-point teams (San Jose, 113; Chicago, 112; Vancouver, 103; Detroit, 102) with rosters that boast a balanced mix of veterans and youngsters. They each possess strong special teams, good speed, impact players, etc., so it shouldn’t be a surprise whichever team survives the West.
Detroit Red Wings vs. San Jose Sharks
Logic suggests the Sharks have an advantage, at least at the outset. They wrapped up their series against Colorado on Saturday and rested for four nights while the Red Wings didn’t finish off the Coyotes until Tuesday. You know the Wings are hiding a few bumps and bruises they would have liked more than 48 hours to rest.
Just the same, the onus is squarely on San Jose to make an early statement. Even if the team isn’t thinking those haunting postseason thoughts now, they certainly will be quickly reminded of their past shortcomings if they drop Game 1 or fall into an early hole like they did in dropping two of the first three games against the Avalanche.
Pressure will also be on San Jose’s top line to produce. That No. 1 line was tweaked during the first round when Dany Heatley’s(notes) lower-body injury (read, knee) didn’t allow him to skate well enough to hang with Joe Thornton(notes) and Patrick Marleau(notes), who were unproductive regardless. Torrey Mitchell(notes) stepped up to play right wing with the big boys, and he was good in the last couple of games, but Thornton and Marleau have to produce offensively, win draws and neutralize defensively for the Sharks to move on.
San Jose got what it missed against Anaheim in last year’s first-round upset – strong secondary scoring – but it would be a mistake to assume Joe Pavelski(notes), Ryane Clowe(notes) and Devin Setoguchi(notes) will carry the team through another round. All three can give the Wings fits, but Detroit coach Mike Babcock has a deeper defense to spread out and defend two scoring lines than what Joe Sacco had at his disposal with Colorado.
Special teams figure to be a key in this series as they always are in the playoffs. The Sharks have historically struggled on the power play in the postseason, especially since Thornton’s arrival. Defenseman Dan Boyle(notes) needs to be at his creative best, Rob Blake(notes) needs to find lanes to get his booming shot through and Clowe/Thornton/Marleau need to do their best Tomas Holmstrom(notes) impersonation in front of rookie Wings goalie Jimmy Howard(notes).
Speaking of Holmstrom, he is a personal nemesis of Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov(notes). The two have enjoyed quite the cat-and-mouse game on the edge and sometimes inside Nabokov’s crease on many nights. Holmstrom has done a pretty good job of messing with Nabokov’s focus. And Daniel Cleary does a nice job as Plan B on the power play. It will be a key in the series to watch.
After a rough Game 2 against Colorado, Nabokov bounced back to put up strong first-round numbers – a 1.76 goals-against average and .926 save percentage. Howard won his first career playoff series, including a Game 7 on the road thanks to six goals of offensive support.
Henrik Zetterberg(notes) (six goals, 11 points), Pavel Datsyuk(notes) (five goals, eight points), Nicklas Lidstrom(notes) (three goals, six points) did in the first round what they always seem to do at this time of the year – perform as Detroit’s best players. The Wings will need more from Johan Franzen(notes) and Todd Bertuzzi(notes), but they’re healthy (minus Kirk Maltby(notes)) and right where they want to be otherwise.
Prediction: The Sharks’ size up front will wear down the Wings’ defense. Combine that with Pavelski’s line providing secondary scoring, and San Jose will win in six games.
Vancouver Canucks vs. Chicago Blackhawks
All the talk of revenge and how this is going to be a nasty series will subside quickly because what happens between the whistles is what’s ultimately going to send someone on to the conference final. Special teams could decide the series if first-round form follows, especially on the penalty kill.
Vancouver has to feel very fortunate to advance in six games against Los Angeles after surrendering a league-high 10 power-play goals (on 26 chances). That obviously has to tighten up, and some of that starts in goal where Roberto Luongo(notes) figures to have a better Round 2 when playing short-handed. Chicago allowed only one power-play goal during 27 Nashville opportunities, so rookie goalie Antti Niemi(notes) got his feet wet in needing to make key stops and the Blackhawks’ penalty-killers were outstanding.
It’s hard to imagine this will be a high-scoring series, but it does pit the conference’s two most productive offenses during the regular season. The Canucks produced 272 goals to the Blackhawks’ total of 271. And the teams split their four-game regular-season series, 2-2, with each enjoying a blowout victory.
Defense could be another area to watch. The Blackhawks got Brian Campbell(notes) back in the first round, and they have to like their depth on the blueline now. Everyone knows about the shutdown pair of Duncan Keith(notes) and Brent Seabrook(notes), who can expect to match up against Vancouver’s Sedin twins as much as possible, but Niklas Hjalmarsson(notes) has emerged as a consistent shot-blocker and dependable defender.
Vancouver’s defense will need to be at its physical best, which is no problem for Kevin Bieksa(notes), but he’ll need support from the rest of the blueline crew. Christian Ehrhoff’s(notes) problem in postseasons past with San Jose was always a matter of consistency. Here’s a chance to prove that he’s matured. The Canucks would sure love to have the injured Willie Mitchell(notes) available, but he remains out with a concussion.
Up front, the Canucks got a huge first-round series from Mikael Samuelsson(notes), who responded big-time once promoted alongside Henrik and Daniel Sedin(notes) in Game 4 against the Kings. Samuelsson finished the six-game series with seven goals and four assists for 11 points, tied for second-most in the league behind Sidney Crosby’s(notes) 14 points.
The Sedins were very good, and that will have to continue. Steve Bernier(notes) supplied secondary scoring with four goals. Ryan Kesler(notes) will have to be a thorn in the Blackhawks’ side and Luongo needs to be at his very best.
Prediction: The Blackhawks would be wise not to drop into a 2-1 hole like they did against the Predators in Round 1 and versus the Canucks in this series last year. That’s playing with fire. Instead, Chicago will zip out to a commanding lead, winning the first three, before capping it off in six.