Saturday, May 15, 2010
By Brett Ballantini
Contrary to that clown-car clash going on in the Eastern Conference, in its final the West boasts a battle of the best, top-dogged San Jose Sharks and second-seeded Chicago Blackhawks. Its a shot at redemption for the Tiburones and a shot at destiny for the Redshirts. Both teams are worthy of a Stanley Cup Final, and either would be a prodigious favorite to win the Cup once there. So, ladies and gentlemen, the true fight to raise the greatest trophy in sports starts Sunday, in San Jose. Heres how the Blackhawks can topple the Sharks:
Knock Off Nabokov: The Blackhawks have essentially owned ace netminder Evgeni Nabokov this season, driving him from the Nov. 25 romp in San Jose and nearly doing the same two months later, again at the Shark Tank. Chicagos propensity to pepper shots on net clearly frustrates the veteran, and honestly, the Blackhawks offense ripped the Sharks to shreds -- and quickly -- in both California meetings this season. Theres a clear aim for the Blackhawks early in Game 1, and thats to create those same blank expressions and overall disarray in San Jose as they have all season.
Deep Thoughts: As it is against nearly every team in the NHL, Chicagos depth is a major advantage in this series. The teams enter play essentially with equal rest, with San Jose playing 11 playoff games so far to the Redshirts 12. The key to this series might well have less to do with how San Joses superpower line of Patrick Marleau-Dany Heatley-Joe Thornton or the Patrick Kanes, Jonathan Toewses and Marian Hossas score than overall scoring depth. Many players in both dressing rooms have talked about the similar makeup of the teams -- both to the rosters of a year ago, and when comparing this seasons direct roster strengths and weakness. So it shouldnt be a matter of stopping the top liners but squelching everyone else; if Joe Pavelski and his second line continues to reign like he has all playoffs (particularly in the first round), most likely the Hometown Heroes will be looking up at an ugly deficit in the series.
Puck Possession: There is no greater key to Chicagos domination of the 2009-10 regular season than its ability on both ends of the ice to simply strongarm and suffocate the game by never letting go of the puck. Chicagos shot differential of plus-9.0, the third-biggest of any team in the post-lockout era, is a distinct measure of playoff success. Against Nashville, Chicago stumbled in this aspect of their game, as the Blackhawks were drawn into some sloggy play and were missing their ace in the hole for puck possession, Brian Campbell. Chicagos shot differential for the series was a mere plus-2.3, but with Campbell back on the ice, the discrepancy between the Hawks and Preds was marked. The Blackhawks boasted good enough balance on both ends of the ice to have gone Globetrotter on the Vancouver Canucks, and was the single-most important aspect of their relatively easy semis win. When Chicago puts itself in position to play keepaway until daylight to the goaltender breaks, teams fold. Its a crucial aspect of not only the Blackhawks offense, but its defense -- and positively essential to the continued strong mental health of rookie netminder Antti Niemi. Puck possession on Chicagos level is nothing short of a neck-snapper, and will be a key determinant in how easy the conference finals pass for the Hometown Heroes.
Antti-Dote: In anticipation of the quarterfinals, Niemi was on an upswing despite having had just 42 games of NHL experience under his belt. He and the Blackhawks are constantly reminded that rookie netminders whove sipped from the Cup are few and far between. But Niemi proved just how bad, bad a Finn he was with some lights-out work in the regular season -- finishing second in the NHL in points percentage (.757), third in shutouts (seven) and fourth in goals-against average (2.25) -- and authoring two shutouts and six strong performances overall in the Nashville series. Uh, hello, new Tony O. He might not have been quite so spectacular vs. Vancouver, but he managed to reduce his rebounds and pretty much locked down the Canucks in Game 6 particularly, a sign that bodes well for the Blackhawks.
If theres a key to Niemi, and something he can count on as an advantage even against the gilded Nabokov, its his unflappable nature -- in coach Joel Quennevilles parlance, hes laid-backish. That quality makes him goalie-wise beyond his 26 years, which he proved with huge saves at key junctures vs. the Preds and Orcas. Niemi is calm, competitive, and seemingly incapable of a giveaway game that would find Cristobal Huet skating back into the blue ice -- in short, everything youre looking for in the net to help provide a deep playoff run.
Make Away Your Home: The Blackhawks have been brilliant on the road in the playoffs in 2010, winning five of six so far. Combine that with the fact that the club twice has clubbed San Jose in the Shark Tank and youve got a recipe for instantaneous snatching of home-ice advantage
Home Cooking: which, actually, might not be the best thing, as Chicago is just 3-3 in the United Center so far in the playoffs. If ever there was a time not to have home-ice for a series, eh?
For sure, the Blackhawks took a bit of a step back in terms of home domination by losing third-period leads in two of three quarterfinal home games, as well as dropping two of three at the UC to the Canucks in the semis. But the fact remains that Chicago won the third-most home games (29) in the NHL in 2009-10 and in the United Center has an advantage like none other in the game. The UC has hosted the two dozen biggest indoor crowds of the entire NHL season, so no barn gets louder and less hospitable for opponents than Sweet Home Chicagos.
Stay Cool, Q The season has been a study in contrasts. Few coaches have the pulse of their teams measured as accurately as Blackhawks mentor Joel Quenneville and that calm leadership is rewarded with faith and confidence from his players. However, as is human nature, Cool Hand Q does tend to be a touch paranoid when it comes to his lines -- hes quick to toss his players into a Lotto hopper of lines when the offense goes a touch stale. When he panics at the sight of stagnant offense mid-game or drops a key cog three lines because of a single brain cramp, theres the risk of confusing or demoralizing the troops. The good news is that Qs most significant shift of the quarterfinal series, inserting Bickell, Adam Burish and a healthy Campbell into the lineup for Game 4, worked like gangbusters -- spurring the Blackhawks to three straight wins. In the semis, Q shifted Dustin Byfuglien from the blue line to the top line -- the Blackhawks flourished. And perhaps the biggest test of Cool Hand Q -- Troy Brouwer, recently reactivated after three healthy scratches, had was whistled on a bonehead high-stick in the first period of Game 6 in Vancouver, Q stuck by his beleaguered forward and the faith reaped the first goal of the game in the very next period.
But Not Too Cool: The Blackhawks played the smooth-groove older brother in response to all of Vancouvers motivational hijinks ramping up to the semifinals, and ultimately held firm and steady in an unnerving, 14-seconds-from-life-support quarterfinals vs. Nashville. But Chicago has shown a propensity for dispassion in the playoffs; the Hawks showed off a surprising lack of heart and confidence early on vs. Nashville, and San Jose has every right to be confident that it can cause some cracks in the Blackhawks veneer as well. But with a calm and logical mentor like Quenneville, there will be no excuse for Chicago losing the emotional and mental battle in this series. The club handled itself extremely well in slicing through the semis, so emotionally the club seems to be in just the right spot.
I Hart Toews: He might not boast the incendiary moves of a Kane or Hossa, but Toews is hands-down the Hart Trophy frontrunner for playoff MVP through two rounds. Quennevilles pearly whites practically blink when discussing his captain, tracing an arc of greatness from being named the top forward in the 2010 Olympics to his recent runs roughshod over Vancouver. When his team needs him, Toews mans up and gets the job done, with scoring, steely leadership or puck-hawking defense.
To the latter, Toews will draw time against big, bad, revitalized Thornton in the series and will not back down. The Big Red Cheese has never looked more active defensively than against Vancouver, forechecking like a whirling dervish. Thornton had better be prepared to face 19 nightmares all series long.
Stay Special: The Blackhawks special teams have been a light-and-dark affair since the Olympics. The penalty kill has always s been steady, a league fourth-best .857 in the regular season upped to a second-best .887 so far in the postseason. The power play, however, has shown signs of fading completely away, a middling .177 in the regular season thankfully revitalized by the stunning impotency of the Canucks kill. For weeks, the Chicago power play has looked to be a five-on-five affair, and the success generated in Vancouver (thanks for the hat trick of PP tallies, Captain Marvel) absolutely must be built on vs. San Jose, which held the Hawks to zero power-play goals in 11 tries during the regular season.
Brett Ballantini isCSNChicago.com's Blackhawks Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnikon Twitter for up-to-the-minute Hawksinformation.