Our previews of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs' opening round, featuring pretty pictures and a special guest video by the great Steve Dangle at the end.
It's been eight long years since the Chicago Blackhawks have been playing hockey deep into April. Rocky Wirtz and John McDonough have changed the entire culture surrounding the franchise. Gone are the days of Rocky's father "Dollar Bill" Wirtz. Now, the Blackhawks aren't afraid to spend, or overspend (see: Campbell, Brian), on free agents or be seen on television.
Currently in a franchise renaissance, Chicago isn't just happy to be in the playoffs after a long absence. The Hawks have been consistently towards the top half of the Western Conference all year long; whatever head coach Joel Quenneville instilled in his players, after he took over after the team's fourth game of the season, has worked.
For the Calgary Flames, they came within one game of taking home the Stanley Cup back in 2004 and haven't been past the first round since. Widely considered the trade deadline winners after picking up Olli Jokinen from Phoenix; but after a quick start, Calgary has struggled.
In the span of a month, the talk about the Flames has gone from a potential Stanley Cup parade to where Mike Cammalleri will sign over the summer. After having a 13-point lead on the Vancouver Canucks in the Northwest Division, the Flames were besieged by injuries and lost their hold on the title. Things got so bad that Calgary had to play the final five games of the season missing between one and three players due to injuries and unable to fill their lineup due to salary cap restrictions.
Two teams heading in different directions; one revigorated after exorcising some demons of their past. The other, trying to recapture the chemistry that they had after the trade deadline and with a large gorilla hanging on their back.
Season Series (Blackhawks win 4-0)
Forwards (Advantage: Even)
Youth is being served in Chicago. A strong core has been built that will make sure the Blackhawks are playoff-bound for the next handful of springs. A healthy (I know, crazy!) Martin Havlat took time off from faith healing and had a career season in assists (48) and points (77). Patrick Kane and captain Jonathan Toews are the dynamic duo that put the wheels in motion for Chicago's turnaround. Kris Versteeg opened some eyes during his first full season in Chicago; and like the Blackhawks themselves, Patrick Sharp is enjoying a career revival. Despite not scoring on a penalty-kill this season, Sharp has shown he can be dangerous while shorthanded.
Getting career seasons from Curtis Glencross (40 points), David Moss (20 goals), and Rene Bourque (21 goals before he was injured) added to the scoring depth the Flames possess. Olli Jokinen was playing like a bat out of hell once he got as far away from Phoenix, scoring eight goals in his first six games with Calgary. He now enters his first NHL playoff experience on a 13-game goalless streak, having not scored since his hat trick against Toronto on March 14.
Mike Cammalleri and Jarome Iginla will be the usual scoring suspects, but can their offensive production follow them into the postseason?
Defensemen (Advantage: Even)
If you want to move the puck up the ice quickly, then Chicago's blue liners can get that job done with ease. Brian Campbell and Duncan Keith are two of the smoothest skaters around. Keith is coming into his own and is developing into one of the best young defenseman in the league. His plus-33 rating led all defensemen and was eight in the League with an average of 25:34 of ice time a night. The supporting cast of Cam Barker (40 points), Brent Seabrook (23:19 of ice time), and Matt Walker (79 PIM's) also add some toughness to protect the space around Nikolai Khabibulin.
Maybe Sean Avery's "sloppy seconds" comments got to Dion Phaneuf? The Edmonton native took a step back this season with career lows in goals (11), points (47), plus/minus (-11), and power-play goals (4), despite leading all defensemen in power-play ice time (445:52). Fourth in the NHL with a 83.4-percent penalty-kill rate thanks to the defensively minded Robyn Regehr and Cory Sarich, the Flames counter with the likes of Adrian Aucoin (10 goals, 34 points) and Jordon Leopold (7 goals, 24 points) on the offensive end.
Goalies (Advantage: Even)
When Cristobal Huet left Washington, many assumed that was the end of Nikolai Khabibulin Time in Chicago. Many joined the bandwagon after Martin Brodeur went down with an arm injury, thinking he would be dealt to New Jersey to sure up their goaltending "issue" at the time. A 25-8-7 record later, the "‘Bulin Wall" has wrestled the starting job away from Huet and heads into the playoffs on a roll winning 8 of his last 10. Huet will provide valuable depth at the position, but has played inconsistently down the stretch.
Conventional wisdom would have you believe that since Curtis McElhinney is on a one-game winning streak, and Miikka Kiprusoff has allowed six goals and lost both of his last two starts, 'Iron' Mike Keenan would go with the hot hand. Nevertheless, Keenan is going with his workhorse in Kiprusoff and hoping that he'll be able to win a playoff series; something he hasn't done since Calgary's Stanley Cup run in 2004.
Leading the league with 45 wins and reaching the 40-plus win plateau for the third time in his career, Kiprusoff will again face the questions about being overworked should he falter early in the series.
If This Series Was a Movie, It Would Be ...
They send one ours to the hospital, we send one of theirs to the morgue.
Power Play (Advantage: Chicago)
A ho-hum power-play unit that ranked 12th in the League at 19.3 percent, Chicago had the third-most chances with the extra man with 363; unless you have a penalty-kill that is full of the fat guys from NES Hockey, then you have a good chance at being successful.
Calgary's unit with the extra man has been all sorts of wackiness. Allowing a league-high 15 shorthanded goals, the Flames ranked 21st in the NHL with a 17 percent success-rate.
Penalty Kill (Advantage: Calgary)
Adding super-defensive forward Samuel Pahlsson at the trade deadline helped boost a sagging Chicago penalty kill that was 18th in the NHL at 80.6 percent but seventh overall with 10 short-handed goals.
The Flames have been able to balance their lack of success on the power play with the League's fourth-best penalty-kill (83.4 percent).
Fight We'd Love To See
Can we hope that this series gets testy enough that we see a captain's brawl between Jarome Iginla and Jonathan Toews? That'd turn things up a notch.