Sunday, April 11, 2010
By Chris Boden
The Blackhawks entered the final day of the regular season with the potential to face the Avalanche, Kings, or Predators.
Turns out, they drew the opponent I was least comfortable with them facing. And that equation had nothing to do with travel destinations. That actually plays into the Hawks hands same time zone, fairly short trip.
Nashvilles top two scorers (breakout boy Patric Hornqvist and now-healthy ex-Hawk Steve Sullivan) have all of 51 points. The Blackhawks have two players with that many assists.
Their team stats pale by comparison: 18th in Goals Per Game. 14th in Goals-Against Average. 24th on the Power Play. 28th on the Penalty Kill. Theyve also been knocked out in the first round of all four of their previous playoff appearances (which came consecutively before missing out last spring) twice by Detroit, twice by San Jose. They lost four of six in the season series to the Hawks.
And yet, this was one of three Central Division teams to hit the century mark in points, and the fact theyre quite familiar with the Hawks personnel doesnt hurt, even though they havent played since December 27th. Behind the braintrust of G.M. David Poile and the only Head Coach theyve ever had Barry Trotz a systems been put in place thats kept the small-market Preds competitive year in and year out. They build from within, make quiet, effective roster moves, and dont dish out free agent money, especially to those outside their existing family. Sure, the Kings have more firepower. The Avs have a no one expected us to be here youth movement and a Park Ridge native in net the Hawks cast off a few years ago, whos played out of his mind this season. No matter whom the high-profile Hawks faced, that opponent would take the old Were David, youre Goliath mindset once the post-season puck dropped. It may not be any more prevalent that this matchup. While Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have deservedly received plenty of attention for their growth into young, All-Star-caliber defensemen who were also both Olympians, the Preds pair of gold medalist Shea Weber and silver medalist Ryan Suter havent received quite the hype. Matter of fact, when I sat down with Keith and Seabrook earlier in the season and asked if they could think of a comparable shutdown tandem, the first they thought of were the 24-year-old Weber and 25-year-old Suter, moreso than Detroits upper 30s-something Olympic tag team of Lidstrom and Rafalski.
Then theres the matchup in net. Only one of these Finns teams wont be fini after playing in their first-ever post-season series. 26-year-old Antti Niemi going out and winning the crease down the stretch cannot be underestimated, but thats exactly what 27-year-old Pekka Rinne did in his battle with Dan Ellis. Rinne (65) has gone 12-4-1 with a Goals-Against of about 2 since the Olympics. He has the same number of shutouts as Niemi (7), but four have come in his last 14 starts. The Hawks went 2-1 when they opposed Rinne this season (just as they did against Ellis), scoring seven goals in those two wins, while he shut them out in the defeat. While Cristobal Huet was as good against the Preds as he was against any opponent this season back in the 2009 portion of the schedule, Niemis lone appearance wound up being in the unlikeliest of matchups in the season series. The Hawks trailed 2-1 after two periods, scored three goals in a seven-minute span for a 4-2 lead, only to have Nashville score twice in less than a minute to tie. Patrick Kane then rescued the two points, and a 4-2 season series triumph, with 44 seconds left. The nine combined goals in that finale represent one-third of the offense compiled between the clubs in their head-to-heads.
Lets salute the Hawks for setting single-season franchise records for points, wins, and road wins. Theyve answered every challenge, most recently coming out of a 2-5-&-2 funk to win six of their final seven. But it says here falling one win shy of matching the franchise single-season record of 30 home victories may have made their first-round road a little tougher. The Blackhawks should win this series. But the past 6-12 months is now just part of the record books, and memories. Now its about creating the ultimate memory for the first time since 61. Weve been waiting. Its finally here.
Be sure to join Steve Konroyd and me for our 30-minute Blackhawks playoff special Tuesday night at 10:30, following SportsNite. Well take an in-depth look at this matchup and hear plenty from both the Hawks and Predators.