Sorry about the long delay in posts – it’s been busy here on this end between getting myself squared away with grad school applications, finding work and housing for the summer, car trouble, computer issues, and throwing up a few posts over at Broad Street Buzz, but I’m back and have lots to catch up on. First things first, I’m gonna break down the Conference Finals and let you know who I like to come out on top in those, then over the course of the next week, we’ll take a look at the moves Brian Burke has already made, some of the moves I think he should make, and finish up the player-by-player grades I started at the end of the season. So without further delay, let’s dive right into the Chicago-San Jose series.
Both the Blackhawks and Sharks looked absolutely dominant at times during their last series against two very tough opponents in the Canucks and Red Wings, just like they have all season. You couldn’t ask for a better matchup in the West, and this series should be just as good, if not better, than the hockey we’ve already witnessed over the past month or so. Both teams have offenses that can give goaltenders nightmares – just ask Roberto Luongo, but they’re also both very capable defensively.
Offense: Take your pick – a Sharks offense led by veterans with a 2nd line of youngsters that has been on fire this postseason, or Chicago’s young guns followed up by veterans like Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau were huge in the Detroit series, and it will be interesting to see who Joel Quenneville tries to matchup with them. Joe Pavelski leads the Sharks with 9 goals so far, while Pat Kane leads the Hawks with 7. Then, of course, there’s playoff scoring leader Jonathan Toews and his 20 points so far. The addition of Dustin Byfuglien to the top line was a major factor in Chicago’s win over Vancouver, and Sharp has been clutch with his 5 goals and 14 points so far.
Defense: San Jose definitely has an edge in experience on the blueline with Rob Blake and Dan Boyle leading the way, but Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have been great all year, and I think the Blackhawks are deeper defensively, with Campbell back at full speed and the emergence of Niklas Hjalmarsson as a guy capable of eating over 20 minutes of ice time a game. Doug Murray and Marc Vlasic give San Jose a great 2nd pairing, but I’ll give Chicago the edge on D if only because of the defensive prowess they have up front. Toews, Hossa, John Madden and Dave Bolland are all valuable assets in their own end, although Madden’s -3 rating so far might indicate his age might finally be catching up to him.
Goaltending: Both Evgeni Nabokov and Antti Niemi have similar numbers coming into the series, but Nabokov’s numbers took a hit when he gave up 5 goals on 9 shots in the first period of Game 4 against Detroit. He bounced back nicely with a 33 save performance in Game 5, though, so he should be feeling pretty good coming into this series. Niemi has been huge for Chicago when they’ve needed him to be, especially on the road in Vancouver, where he did a great job of keeping the Canucks from gaining any momentum while his teammates were filling the back of Luongo’s net with more rubber than a Michelin factory. Not much room between these two guys – they’re both solid positionally and have the big save potential that is always crucial in the playoffs.
Special Teams: Starting to sound like a broken record here, but the two teams are so closely matched here you couldn’t make it up if you tried. Both clubs have 11 powerplay goals so far, and both have allowed just 6 goals with the man advantage. Chicago’s percentages are a bit higher since they had 6 more powerplays and 15 more penalty kills than the Sharks.The Blackhawks’ physical style of play can get them into a bit of penalty trouble, but with Boston eliminated, the Hawks now have the highest penalty kill percentage in the playoffs at 88.7%.
The Hawks are getting alot of the press, especially with the way they manhandled Vancouver on the road last series, but something that’s been overlooked is the fact that the Sharks managed to win 3 consecutive one goal games against a veteran Detroit team that just about always finds a way to win in the playoffs. All spring, the Sharks have taken steps to remove themselves from the chokers reputation they built since the lockout, but they’re not satisfied with a berth in the Western Conference Finals. I’m going with my gut and taking Chicago, but if I was a gambling man, I’d be staying far, far away from this series.
My Pick: Blackhawks in 6