It's officially game day!
Everyone (myself included) has been discussing the Buff vs. Luongo storyline, but I think that has unfairly taken away from some other key factors heading into this series. What needs to happen for the Hawks to get past this very good Canucks team? Here's my list:
1) Joel Quenneville must be on top of his "matchup game".
Against Nashville, this wasn't quite as big an issue as it normally would be. Outside of a few guys, the Predators roster consisted of a bunch of grindy, annoying pests who were going to outwork you for their goals. Quenneville had the luxury of being able to send Brent Sopel (who had a wonderful couple of games) onto the ice in many situations without the fear of him getting exposed by skill and speed. The same goes for other defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Jordan Hendry in the games he played in. That changes vs. the Canucks.
The Canucks are a physical team, but they also have big time scoring ability. In fact, they lit the lamp more times than our Hawks did during the regular season. Daniel and Henrik Sedin are the obvious concern. As you'd expect from identical twins, the two have as good of chemistry on the ice any duo in the NHL. The Canucks also get plenty of scoring from Mikael Samuelsson, who leads Vancouver in playoff points, and Ryan Kesler, who you may remember watching play for the Americans in the Olympics.
If Quenneville isn't able to get Keith and Seabrook consistently matched up on the Canucks' top line, its going to be a long series. Depending on which forward line he decides to matchup with the Sedin's (likely either Bolland or Madden's line), he needs to be consistent with that as well. Luckily, the Hawks will have the last line change for the first two games as the home team.
2) Antti Niemi has to rise to the challenge.
Outside of a few questionable goals, Niemi had a fantastic series vs. Nashville. He made big saves in big situations, and never allowed one bad goal to turn into four ( *cough* Huet). But before we get too excited, let's remember that the Predators offense lacks the scoring ability that Vancouver's does. Some of the near misses and close opportunities that a guy like Steve Sullivan had last series will be promptly put in the back of the net by a Daniel Sedin or a Ryan Kesler.
Remember that incredible save Niemi had in Game 2 to keep the game scoreless? That's likely going to be required from him on more than one occasion in the next couple weeks.
While Quenneville's line changes and team defense are huge factors, #31 is the last line of defense. He's going to be seeing 2 on 1's, a better power play, and an overall offensive pace that he didn't see in the six games vs. Nashville. No matter how well the defense plays, the Canucks are going to get their chances. Niemi has to come up big.
Does Antti have it in him? I'd like to think so. He already shut out Vancouver once during the regular season. Now he just has to prove he can stifle them in the heat of a playoff series too.
3) Top two lines have to find the back of the net.
This one is pretty obvious, but it's essential.
Throughout the Nashville series, a lot of writers and fans criticized the Hawks' superstars for not scoring enough. But looking at the stat sheet through one round tells a different story. Toews, Kane, Sharp, and Hossa all scored more than a point per game, with 8 points for Toews and 7 for the other three. Could they have been better in some games? Of course. But for the most part, they were good.
That has to continue, and then some. Like I said earlier, the Hawks scored less goals this season than the Canucks (only by one, but still). The Hawks need to have good shifts from their forwards in order to gain puck possession and take away time and opportunities from the Canucks' all stars.
Not to mention, getting a few quick ones past "Mr. Confidence" Roberto Luongo wouldn't hurt either.
4) The Hawks need to score first!
This was stressed last series as well, but it might be just as important vs. the Canucks. Vancouver isn't quite the trapping team that Nashville is, but they certainly would consider switching into that strategy if they gained an early lead. They tried it last year and failed, but only because of Martin Havlat's late game heroics in Game 4.
The Canucks have plenty of offense, but that doesn't mean they can play a back and forth game vs. the Hawks. Chicago is still the faster team, and scoring first would force Vancouver to start taking some chances. That would play right into the Blackhawks' hands.
5) Hawks need heavy traffic in front of Luongo
You can read my thoughts on Dustin Byfuglien's needed net presence here, but the rest of the team needs to be committed to making Roberto Luongo's life a living hell too. Luongo might be easily shaken, but that doesn't mean he's not a damn good goaltender when he is on top of his game. If Luongo can see the puck, he's going to stop it a high percentage of the time.
This is why the Hawks need to get bodies in front of Luongo and throw pucks toward the net. Net presence leads to juicy rebounds and deflections, and these are really the most effective ways to beat a goaltender the caliber of Luongo.
Andrew Ladd, Bryan Bickell, and Tomas Kopecky....I'm talking to you. Don't make Buff do it all himself.
Now it's time to rest, get the vocal chords ready, and head to the UC later today for Game 1. I'll be one of the roughly three people in the building wearing a Hjalmarsson jersey. Let's go Hawks!
-JT (Follow me on Twitter @JTalarico328 for Hawks thoughts, news and updates)