Friday, April 30, 2010
By Chris Boden
If the Canucks keep scoring 4.17 goals per playoff game (as they did in the first round versus Los Angeles), any questions about whether Roberto Luongo can goaltend his team into a conference final for the first time in his career won't matter. And Antti Niemi will feel at least some of Luongo's pain after the Blackhawks' seven-goal Game 6 clincher last May.
Niemi and the Hawks' defense were good against Nashville. You don't get two shutouts without being good. But you're also not great if you're blowing 3-1 leads in back-to-back games en route to victories that closed out that series. No one needs to tell them the Canucks aren't (with all due respect) the Predators.
Alain Vigneault decided it was ex-Red Wing Mikael Samuelsson "on" and Alex Burrows "off" the Sedin Line going into the Kings series. The result? 12 goals, 29 points from that line alone! The Hawks' top guns seemed to feel their way around what the Predators gave them for three games, and bravely faced the criticisms as panic began to creep into Hawk Nation. They acknowledged they needed to do better, then went out and were.
Toews, Hossa, and Sharp combined for no goals and four assists those first three games (while Patrick Kane still managed a pair of goals and a helper). Then they went out and delivered the knockout punch the final three games, the trio delivering six goals and 18 points.
More times than not, however, these series need that surprise "X" Factor (especially when you're only killing 16 of 26 penalties). Vancouver got that with Steve Bernier - 11 goals in the regular season, four in six games against L.A. If the Hawks aren't killing all but one penalty over a series (and the Canucks' power play clicked on 21 percent in the regular season and 25 percent so far in the playoffs), an offensive breakout from a Bolland, Brouwer, Versteeg..or how about even Andrew Ladd?..would be a huge shot in the arm. Vancouver worked to add depth in the off-season so up to three lines could be dangerous. The Hawks already had it, to the point where all four could be legit threats. Dustin Byfuglien was their "X" Man in the series a year ago - not necessarily from a statistical standpoint, but setting a tone and message, and being a headache. Now he's back on a "fourth" line with Brouwer and John Madden. Wasn't it just two weeks ago that a fourth line including Colin Fraser and Ben Eager really carried this team into the post-season?
Luongo's post-Olympic performance included seeing five of 14 shots get past him in just 20 minutes at the United Center on March 5th. Since winning gold for Canada on his home sheet and telling Kane he wanted to see him in the playoffs again, his goals-against average was above 3, and his save percentage below .900. Things didn't seem to be going much better through less than four full games (including an early exit and two partial overtime periods) against the Kings. But do you look at the 13 shots that got past him in that time, or the fact nine were power play goals? Or both? He tightened up to help the 'Nucks close it out, allowing only a pair each in Games Five and Six. Is he back on track - just in time for this rematch that he and all of his teammates have been obsessed with over the past year?
I've used the phrase before this season; Things Change. And quickly. For the Hawks, just go back to last Saturday's game. Or Monday's first period.
Both of these teams are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. The one that doesn't find the 'Next Level' is going to be awfully heartbroken in less than two weeks. The only certainty is it'll be fun, and tense, in between.