much for Olympic fatigue.
The two teams with the
largest presence in the Vancouver Olympics have overcome tired legs and close
calls in the first two rounds to meet in the Western Conference Finals.
The Sharks were pushed
to the limit on numerous occasions in the first round against Colorado, and we
all know how close the Blackhawks came to being knocked off by Nashville. But in the
end, the #1 and #2 seeds came out of the conference semifinals alive and
clicking on all cylinders. Both teams are coming off impressive series
victories, with the Sharks taking out Detroit in five games and the Hawks
beating the Canucks in six.
This is a match-up
that most around the NHL have been expecting all season long. Before
Washington went on a tear, the Hawks and Sharks were battling for both the top
spot in the West and the top spot in the whole league. Every regular season
meeting between the two clubs was surrounded by hype and playoff series
implications. Finally, the stage is set.
The Sharks are a very
talented team that has been prone to playoff failure in recent seasons. Patrick
Marleau and Joe Thornton are always lights out in the regular season, but they
never seem to get the Sharks over the hump in the playoffs. Before this year,
their only Conference Finals appearance in team history came in 2004. For the
first time, the Blackhawks are the ones that can say "we've been here
before" while their opponent cannot.
The Hawks and Sharks
met four times in the regular season. If you looked only at the results of those games, you'd pick the Hawks to win the series handily. They took
three of the four games, and out-shot the Sharks 47-14 in their only loss (a
classic "Huet game"). Even more encouraging was the Hawks' 2-0 record
in San Jose, including a dominant 7-2 victory the night before
The Hawks might be the
popular pick in this series, but it wouldn't be smart to base that pick solely
on the Hawks' success head to head this year. A 7-game series is a different
monster than the regular season. There are many factors that can make or break this series for the Hawks. Here are four that I will be watching closely:
Keith and Seabrook vs.
San Jose's top line
This matchup features
five teammates from Team Canada: Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Joe Thornton,
Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley. Thornton centers the Sharks' top line
between Marleau and Heatley, forming the most deadly line in the NHL. Anyone
expecting Keith and Seabrook to completely shut down this line will probably
end up disappointed. Let's face it: the entire line played for Team Canada
for a reason. Over a 7-game series,
these guys are going to get their points. The key here for the Hawks' top
defensive pairing is to not allow them to take over the series.
Thornton, Heatley, and Marleau have 11, 11, and 7 points respectively in the playoffs. All three averaged at least a point per game in the regular season, and Thornton's 89 points led the team. These three are most dangerous when they get the puck deep and get into a cycle near the opponent's net. Thornton's size, puck possession, and passing skills combined with Marleau and Heatley's scoring ability makes this line a threat every time they touch the ice.
Duncan Keith has shown signs of wear and tear in the last two series', as he has recorded a minus-1 in the twelve games. Keith is usually consistent but he has been the opposite in these playoffs. He has looked like himself in some games, but in others he has had difficulties with passing and clearing the zone.
In order for the Hawks to contain this line, Keith needs to have a good series and Brent Seabrook needs to continue his smart and physical play. If those two things happen, it will go a long way toward winning this series.
Contain Joe Pavelski
While the Sharks' top line is the most feared in the NHL, San Jose has gotten the majority of their playoff scoring from another source: Joe Pavelski. The U.S. Olympian leads the Sharks with 9 goals and 15 points in the playoffs, and has recorded a plus-7 in eleven postseason games, also tops on the team.
Joel Quenneville's main match-up objective for this series is to get Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook onto the ice every time Thornton, Marleau and Heatley are. This means that players like Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brian Campbell are going to be responsible for keeping Pavelski in check. Hjalmarsson and Campbell have been solid thus far in the playoffs; that's the good news. The bad news is that Pavelski has been the best forward in the postseason besides maybe Mike Cammalleri of the Montreal Canadiens.
Stopping the Thornton line would be great, but the Sharks can still win this series with secondary scoring. Hjalmarsson, Campbell, Brent Sopel, and Jordan Hendry have to play their best hockey to make sure that doesn't happen.
Strong play up the middle
One of the biggest reasons the Hawks are eight wins from a Stanley Cup has been the play of their centers. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Dave Bolland, and John Madden have all had individual moments of glory in the playoffs already. Toews leads the NHL with 20 points in the playoffs, and continues to prove that he saves his best performances for the biggest stages.
Sharp, despite being a natural winger, has been great while centering the Hawks' 2nd line. If he has one job in this series, it's to help get line-mate Marian Hossa on the scoreboard more often. Sharp has an impressive 14 points in the playoffs, and has consistently been one of the best forwards through the first two rounds. If he continues to skate with the same sense of urgency he has, it should eventually result in more scoring chances for Hossa. Let's hope so.
If the second round was any indication, Joel Quenneville will try and get Dave Bolland's line matched up on San Jose's top line. Bolland did a great job last series against the Sedin twins, as he kept them in check and frustrated them on many occasions (especially Daniel). Bolland was criticized for poor play after returning from his back surgery, but he seems to be coming around. He has been noticeable in every playoff game in all three zones, and his awesome shorthanded goal in Game 6 put the Canucks away for good. If Bolland is indeed given the job of stopping the top line, he has to come up big.
John Madden's presence has been felt most on the penalty kill. He was a very large part of killing the 5-minute major in Game 5 vs. Nashville that led to the Hossa game-winner. The Hawks' penalty kill ranks 2nd in the playoffs and 1st among teams that are still alive. The Sharks' power play ranked 4th in the regular season, scoring on 21% of their chances. The Sharks' size and skill usually leads to penalties by the opponent, so Madden and the penalty kill need to be strong in this series.
There seems to be a pattern here. As Antti Niemi goes, so go the Hawks.
Many were concerned about Niemi's lack of experience heading into the playoffs, but he has proved the doubters wrong up to this point. The problem here is that Niemi has never faced the Sharks. Cristobal Huet started all four games vs. the Sharks in the regular season while Niemi played a back-up role. San Jose will also be the most potent offense Niemi has seen in the playoffs, so it will be interesting to see how he responds.
The positive outlook on Niemi is that he has responded to challenges all season long. He will face numerous scoring chances every game of this series, and will have to take his game to a new level. I have confidence that he will.
My prediction? Hawks in six.
I envision the Hawks advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals on home ice, towels being wildly waved and thrown onto the United Center ice, and the loudest roar the UC has ever produced. The Sharks are a very good team, but I think the Hawks are deeper. We'll see in two weeks.
Here is the complete schedule for the Western Conference Finals:
Game Date Time Venue TV Radio
1 Sunday, May 16 2:00 P.M. HP Pavilion NBC WIND
2 Tuesday, May 18 9:00 P.M. HP Pavilion VERSUS WIND
3 Friday, May 21 7:00 P.M. United Center VERSUS WIND
4 Sunday, May 23 2:00 P.M. United Center NBC WGN
5* Tuesday, May 25 8:00 P.M. HP Pavilion VERSUS WIND
6* Thursday, May 27 7:00 P.M. United Center VERSUS WGN
7* Saturday, May 29 7:00 P.M. HP Pavilion VERSUS WGN
Follow me on Twitter @JTalarico328 for Hawks thoughts, news and updates
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Tags: Antti Niemi, Blackhawks playoff schedule, Brent Seabrook, Brent Sopel, Brian Campbell, Chicago Blackhawks, Dany Heatley, Dave Bolland, Duncan Keith, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Joel Quenneville, John Madden, Jonathan Toews, Jordan Hendry, Kris Versteeg, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Patrick Marleau, Patrick Sharp, San Jose Sharks, United Center