Saturday, May 15, 2010
The Western Conference Finals begin at 2:30 pm and feature the (1) Sharks and the (2) Blackhawks. The Eastern Conference Finals start at 7:00 pm and feature the (7) Flyers and the (8) Canadiens. The seedings immediately jump out. The playoffs are a wacky time.
To get everyone ready for the big match-ups I have prepared a comprehensive breakdown of both Conference Finals. I’ll post the Eastern Conference breakdown sometime tomorrow afternoon. Maybe I’ll be nursing a hang-over and will fill it with plenty of bitter jabs at the Habs.
But for now here’s the Western Conference breakdown.
This is a very close matchup. Both teams have high-powered offenses that ranked third and fourth in total goals during the regular season.
The Sharks are no longer solely powered by the Big Three, which is a good thing considering they have only combined for 8 goals over two series. Instead, the second line of Setoguchi, Clowe, and especially Pavelski has paced the offense. Those three have combined for 16 goals, almost half the Sharks total goals. This gives the Sharks much-needed depth. Teams can no longer content themselves with solely shutting down the Thornton line; they must focus on others as well. This might be the biggest change from other Shark teams.
The top players on Chicago are outperforming the top players on the Sharks. Jonathan Toews leads the playoffs in scoring with 20 points; Patrick Kane is second with 15 (this ties him with San Jose point leader, Joe Pavelski). These are two of the best young players in the game today.
Chicago also boasts a very balanced attack. During the regular season they had six 20-goal scorers and 11 with at least 10 goals.
Slight Edge: Chicago
Chicago has the best defensive pairing in the entire league (Keith and Seabrook). Keith is a Norris Trophy finalist who along with Seabrook played a significant role in Canada’s Olympic gold medal. They played well against the Sedin twins in the second round, limiting them to only three goals in six games.
The return of Brian Campbell has definitely solidified the rest of the Chicago defence. He gives them an added offensive threat from the blueline, without hurting them defensively.
The rest of the Chicago defence is solid, if not spectacular.
If San Jose has a weakness it would be their defence. Rob Blake is 40-years-old and is no longer the number one defenceman he once was. I wouldn’t say he’s running on fumes, but he can be exploited by Chicago's quickness.
2010 Olympian Dan Boyle is the anchor of the San Jose defence and is better offensively than he is defensively. I’ll refrain from joking about his two own goals this playoffs, but he seriously better start putting the puck in Chicago’s net if the Sharks hope to advance. Boyle isn’t your prototypical number one defenceman and is miles behind both Keith and Seabrook.
This isn’t exactly an elite match-up in nets. Evgeni Nabokov is a great regular season goalie, but has yet to perform up to his standards in the playoffs. This year is no exception. After posting a sizzling 1.76 GAA and .926% against the heavy underdog Avalanche he played uneven against the Red Wings. He had a 3.37 GAA and .886%, although these numbers are skewed thanks to a 7-1 Wings beatdown in game 4.
Nabokov was 1-1-2 with a 3.78 GAA against the Blackhawks during the regular season and will need to be better for the Sharks to advance.
Antti Niemi has played inconsistently throughout the playoffs, but has been a stopper when the Hawks need him to be. In game 6 against the Canucks, Niemi stopped 29 of 30 shots to help the Hawks eliminate the Canucks.
Niemi hasn’t really separated himself from Nabokov these playoffs and they both have similar numbers. Niemi has a 2.57 GAA and a .909%.
Both goalies have their baggage. This is Niemi’s first season as a starter, while Nabokov has a history of playing poorly in the playoffs, specifically big games. It’s basically a tossup between the two, but I’ll give the edge to the Sharks based on Nabokov’s experience (um, albeit losing experience…).
Edge: San Jose
One of the main reasons why Chicago defeated the Canucks was their tremendous power-play. The Canucks insisted upon taking bad penalty after bad penalty and the Blackhawks made them pay. Chicago scored seven goals in 28 opportunities over the six game series with the Canucks and have a power-play operating at 21.6% throughout the entire playoffs.
San Jose has scored the same amount of power-play goals as the Hawks (11), but have done so in seven more opportunities.
Chicago has allowed only six power-play goals against in a total of 53 times short-handed for an 88.7% efficiency. San Jose has allowed the same amount, but in only 38 times short-handed.
Chicago is also much deadlier when short-handed, scoring 3 goals with a man in the box. The most famous of which tied game 5 against the Predators and sent the game to overtime where the Hawks eventually won on a Marian Hossa goal.
San Jose coach Todd McLellan has done a remarkable job taking the Sharks to the Conference Finals, which is saying a lot about the Sharks’ playoff history considering this is a stacked team. Whatever he’s said to the Big Three must be working since they’ve all improved their game since the opening round.
This is McLellan’s second year as the San Jose coach and spent his previous NHL coaching career under Detroit guru Mike Babcock. He spent two years as an assistant in Detroit and had the task of handling the Red Wings’ forwards and power-play.
McLellan’s counterpart, Joel Quenneville, is in his 13th season as a head coach, and is on his third team during that time frame. This will be his third time taking a team to the Conference Finals (2001 with St. Louis and 2009 with Chicago being the other two).
He’s also won a Stanley Cup as an assistant coach with the Avalanche in 1996.
This matchup might come down to who is able to make their professional athletes recognize when to jump on and off the ice at acceptable times. The too many men on the ice calls are off the charts this post-season. You’d think everyone would have this down by now.
How they got there
Both teams had a more difficult time than expected in the opening round, being pushed to six games by the Avalanche and Predators.
In the second round the Sharks beat the Red Wings in 5 games, stumbling only in game 4’s 7-1 meltdown in which the Red Wings came out blazing. Despite the 4-1 series outcome it wasn’t a total white wash, as the Sharks only won their games by a single goal. Still, they defeated the defending Western Conference champions in a mere 5 games. That’s impressive.
The Hawks had a slightly harder time with their second round opponents. They were blasted in the first game by the Canucks, but rallied and blew out Vancouver in four of the next five games. They even clinched the series with a resounding 5-1 thumping on the road.
Slight Edge: San Jose
Any doubts that the Sharks had in themselves were clearly washed away following their 4-1 series beating of the Red Wings.
On an individual basis, Joe Thornton had one of his best playoff series against the Red Wings, scoring 3 goals and 5 assists in five games. He even played with a physical edge.
If the Sharks are over their playoff history then this could be a very, very good series and the Sharks are definitely a team to be reckoned with.
The Hawks were able to overcome a brutal first game against the Canucks in which they were soundly defeated 5-1 at home. Any complacency they felt after the first round was wiped away immediately following the loss. They have looked like a ferocious team ever since.
The Sharks have three Stanley Cup winners on their team (Boyle, Wallin, and Blake), while the Blackhawks boast three as well (Madden, Ladd, and Kopecky). Both Boyle and Blake were major contributors on their cup winning teams (Tampa Bay in 2004 and Colorado in 2001). Out of the three Chicago Cup winners only John Madden made a major impact on his team’s fortunes and that was not as a top-line forward. However, he has won the Stanley Cup twice.
Both teams sent major players to the Olympics this year. Chicago’s Toews, Keith, and Seabrook won Gold for Canada, while Kane brought home a Silver for the USA. San Jose’s Thornton, Heatley, Marleau, and Boyle won Gold with Canada, but did not play as an integral role in the later parts of the tournament. Their insta-chemistry definitely paced Canada during the first few games, but by the end of the tournament Toews had become Canada’s best forward and Keith their best defenceman. Pavelski won a Silver for the USA.
This is the first time the Sharks have made it to the Conference Finals since 2004 when they were defeated by the upstart Flames. Chicago made it to the Conference Finals last season and were defeated by the battled-hardened Red Wings. I think the Hawks have learned a lot from that series and now know what it takes to make the next step.
Slight Edge: Chicago
Prediction: Hawks in 6