If there was any team that the league’s best squad didn’t want to see in the first round of the playoffs, it was the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks have ousted the Canucks in back-to-back seasons, and playing from the 8th seed could actually be a benefit to Chicago. As defending Cup champs, it’s always difficult to repeat, but in this particular series, they have to be considered underdogs, which should relieve alot of the pressure. There’s no question, with the memories of years past looming large, if the Canucks happen to get down early in this series, it could be a brutal end to a great season.
Offense: Talk about starpower. The Sedin twins are arguably the most talented pair of brothers the game has ever seen, and after Henrik won the Art Ross and Hart Trophies last season, Daniel should repeat the feat this year, having already locked up the scoring title. On the other end of the ice, two of the NHL’s most dynamic young players in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are looking to build on their already impressive resumes. The Canucks led the league in scoring with 262 goals this season, but the Hawks weren’t far behind with 258. Vancouver had five 50-point scorers, including defenseman Christian Ehrhoff. Chicago’s top four forwards were all above 50 points as well, while they still get impressive production from their blueline as well. Aside from the above-mentioned superstars, both sides have strong supporting casts. Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp both had strong seasons, and Sharp was a key player in the Hawks’ Cup run last year. The key for Chicago will be finding another physical presence to fill the void left by the absence of Dustin Byfuglien, who was probably the biggest reason Chicago downed the Canucks last year. The trade deadline pickups of Chris Higgins and Max Lapierre probably make the Canucks a bit deeper, but I’m calling this one a draw.
Defense: While it’s difficult to find a better blueline than Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brian Campbell, Vancouver has the deepest blueline in the league, even with some of their injuries. With Ehrhoff, Alex Edler, a healthy (for now) Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard leading the way, the Canucks have no shortage of quality defensemen. Both bluelines can score, but the Canucks pulled off the amazing feat of being both the highest scoring and strongest defensive team, allowing a league-low 185 goals, by far the best performance of any team’s defense.
Goaltending: On paper, the matchup between the gold-medal winning Roberto Luongo and surprising rookie (if you can call him that after three previous seasons of sparse NHL duty) Corey Crawford looks to be a heavy advantage for the Canucks. However, Crawford is coming off a great season, and Luey’s struggles in Chicago are well-documented. Not that he’ll be used, but Cory Schneider offers a far more enticing security blanket than Marty Turco, so I’m gonna have to stick with Vancouver on this one. The edge isn’t as significant as you would think, though.
Special Teams: Not surprisingly, the Canucks are excellent on both sides of their special teams play. Watch out for Daniel Sedin and Ryan Kesler when Vancouver’s got the man advantage. Sedin had 18 of his 41 goals on the powerplay, while Kesler notched 15 powerplay tallies of his own. Toews and Sharp are the two most dangerous shooters for the Hawks’ powerplay, which should be no surprise. The Blackhawks weren’t too far off in terms of powerplay effectiveness, but the Canucks hold a sifnificant advantage on the penalty kill, especially with the ever-dangerous Kesler and Burrows doing some of their best work on the kill.
While I’m no fan of the Canucks and history is certainly not on their side, it would be a big surprise to me if this Canucks team failed to advance. The Hawks will make it interesting, but it will be a short postseason for the defending Cup champs.
Editor’s Pick: Vancouver in 6