Friday, April 30, 2010
By Brett Ballantini
Its the matchup that the Chicago Blackhawks are licking their chops over and rematch that the Vancouver Canucks have endeavored a year to experience. No matter how you flip the puck, Chicago-Vancouver Mach II is appears to be dead even. Here are 10 ways the Hawks can advance past the Canucks:
Make Roberto Reach for the Tissues: Last year, the Blackhawks dismantled Vancouver ace goalie Roberto Luongo, reducing him to tears after a 7-5 romp in Game 6 to clinch a conference finals berth. Life wont get any easier for the Olympic gold medalist this year: The Blackhawks have more offensive firepower, and the Orca blueliners in front of Lu are weaker. Willie Mitchell will miss the series, and Christian Ehrhoff, Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo and Andrew Alberts might as well be taking tickets given how easily Chicagos forwards should slice past them. An attacking Hawks offense also could easily force the Couv D into even more reckless penalties than it usually takes. Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault could mitigate exposing Luongo by slowing the Canucks attack down, thereby compromising the already nervous play of his defenders a little less. But watch outthe Blackhawks have the potential to traipse through the Vancouver zone with regularity, which could spell disasterand an awful lot of tissuesfor Luongo.
Dont Believe the Hype: Youd think this was Vancouvers Stanley Cup Finals with the way the team is talking of grudge matches and revenge and waiting all year to return to Chicago. Doubtlessly the Canucks will come out in Game 1 firing at 150. The Hawks are a smart enough team to know how to manipulate that over-emotingdrawing penalties and exposing overplays by an anxious and ill-mannered Vancouver defenseand turn it into a two- or three-goal advantage and an easy first win.
Deep Thoughts: Both the Blackhawks and Canucks boast a bevy of sublimely-talented forwards. The key to a series win will have much less to do with how the Sedin Wonder Twins or Patrick KaneMarian Hossa score; scoring depth will be the key. Many players in both dressing rooms have talked this week about the similar makeup of the teamsboth 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 Sedins but squelching everyone else; if Ryan Kesler, Alexandre Burrows and Mikael Samuelsson (who was promoted to the top line and responded with 11 points in the quarters) are going ham on the Hawks, 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 strong arm and suffocate the game by never letting go of the puck. Chicagos shot differential of 9.0 the third-biggest of any team in the post-lockout era and 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 have good enough balance on both ends of the ice that they can go Globetrotter on teams even as talented as Vancouver, playing keep away until daylight to the goaltender breaks. Puck possession on Chicagos level is nothing short of a neck-snapper, and will be a key determinant in how easy the semis pass for the Hometown Heroes.
Antti-Dote: In anticipation of the quarterfinals, rookie netminder Antti 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 seasonfinishing 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.
If theres a key to Niemi, and something he can count on as an advantage even against the gilded Luongo, its his unflappable naturein 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 (killing four penalty minutes in playoff overtime, anyone?). Niemi is calm, competitive, and seemingly incapable of a giveaway game that would find Cristobal Huet skating back into the blue icein short, everything youre looking for in the net to help provide a deep playoff run.
One-Hundred Pound Weaklings: Lets break it right down, the Blackhawks ace penalty killhello, 26-of-27 vs. Nashvillewill face a stiff challenge from a Vancouver power play that busted L.A.s chops to the tune of a .250 success rate. But the real battle will be to see which of the weaker links will stand tall. The Blackhawks converted on just .174 of their advantage opportunities vs. Nashville, while the Canucks finished last in the NHL in PKs in the quarters, shutting the door on just .615 vs. the Kings.
In the category of practice, practice, practice, these units should get quite a number of workouts, as the Canucks averaged more than 13 minutes of penalties vs. L.A. Figure on something giving way, and seeing as how Vancouver is due to raise their PK back to the middle-pack level it maintained during the regular season, count on Dustin Byfuglien, Troy Brouwer, Andrew Ladd and Bryan Bickell crashing Luongo at every opportunity in an attempt to up Chicagos power numbers.
Defensive Domination: Vancouvers defense, with or without the concussed Willie Mitchell, is weaker and sloppier than Chicagos. In this series, where high-powered offense is pitted against high-octane attack, that extra level of protection could be an easy key to victory. With Campbell back and the Blackhawks blueliners clicking, life will be much tougher on the likes of the Sedins and Samuelssons than it will be on the Kanes, Toewses and Hossas. The fact that Chicagos D is a key to its terrific puck-possession game, and also provides ample scoring in support of the forward corps? Bonus.
Home Cooking: 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. But the fact remains that Chicago won the third-most (29) home games 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. Last year, the decibel level for the pregame national anthem alone was eardrum-bleeding. Its only going to get louder as the Hometown Heroes advance.
Be Cool: The Blackhawks have been the smooth-groove older brother in response to any and all of Vancouvers hijinks over this past regular season, from Mitchells blind shot on Toews in October to the season long soap opera between Kesler and Ladd. More of the sameturning the other cheek, or glancing back and laughingwill be a key element of Chicagos success in the semis.
Now, the Hawks showed off a surprising lack of heart and confidence early on vs. Nashville, and Vancouver 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.
Stay Cool, Q: That said, Cool Hand Q does tend to be a touch paranoid when it comes to his lineshes 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 gangbustersthe Blackhawks are undefeated since.
Brett Ballantini isCSNChicago.com's Blackhawks Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnikon Twitter for up-to-the-minute Hawksinformation.