Playoff hockey is finally upon us, so grow out that mullet or beard or both (if you really want to be female-repellent) and get ready to witness some of the most intense and exciting competition since the 2011 NCAA women’s basketball tournament (just kidding). This year the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks squeezed through the regular season on the last day to capture the eight seed in the Western Conference, thanks to our friends in Minnesota.
This will be the third year in a row that the Blackhawks have to face the Vancouver Canucks, but the first time they will face in the Conference Quarterfinals in the history of the two franchises. The Hawks have annihilated the ‘Nucks’ cup chances in the semifinals both years. But can they do it once more, as an eight seed?
The Hawks will no doubt have their hands full with the Canucks’ top six forwards. After all, the Canucks do boast the number one offense in the NHL, scoring the most goals total and having the best power play to go with it. Staying out of the box should be the Hawks main priority, considering we have one of the worst penalty kills in the league (25th ranked). The Canucks first line will look like D. Sedin-H. Sedin-Burrows, followed by Higgins-Kesler-Samuelsson. Besides Higgins, we’ve seen this before. A little too much, in fact. The weird twins did a switch-a-roo this year, one year removed from Henrik winning both the Art Ross and Hart trophies, Daniel looks set to win at least one, if not both this year. Cute, huh? The setup is the same as always, Henrik sets up Daniel for the goals, while Alex Burrows acts like a girl and pulls hair. Jokes aside, this top line scored 86 goals this year, with 41 coming from Daniel Sedin alone. Look for Toews’ line (barring a Dave Bolland comeback) to try and stop this monster, coupled with the Seabrook-Keith defensive pairing. The “Keithbrook” pairing will need to play its best hockey of the year, and stop the weird twins from controlled puck possession, because this will lead to goals against us.
Moving to the second line, the Hawks will have to deal with, arguably, the best two-way center in the NHL in Ryan Kesler. Kesler not only wins faceoffs, gets takeaways, and agitates, but he can score too. He put up 41 goals this year, making his case for the Selke trophy once again. There’s no doubt that coach Alain Vigneault will try and employ Kesler out to stifle and agitate the Hawks’ number one line in Sharp-Toews-Kane. If Dave Bolland can return by the first round, he’ll probably do his best Kesler impression and take on the Nucks’ top line. Kesler’s wings Samuelsson and Higgins don’t look to provide much of a threat, but besides Hossa, can Frolik and Stalberg equal or do more damage than Versteeg and Byfuglien did last year? Most definitely not.
The Canucks’ bottom six forwards don’t look favorable compared to the Hawks’ bottom six. Besides the speedy Mason Raymond, Kopecky, Bickell, and Brouwer shouldn’t have any problems bodying and out-muscling the Canucks’ last two lines. If this is where some of the Hawks’ goals come from, then so be it.
I hate to admit it, but it does look like the Hawks’ don’t stack up to the Canucks’ forwards as well as they did last year. The offseason liquidation the Hawks had may be the deciding factor in the series if the defense can’t hold up. As most remember, Byfuglien was the X-factor in the series last year, drawing penalties and scoring goals down low. The Hawks did not acquire any talents close to what Byfuglien/Versteeg brought to the team last year.
Going from +28 to a -1 since last season only makes my mind boggle when looking at Duncan Keith. Keith had absolutely immaculate play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season and has been somewhat of a disappointment this year. There will be no room whatsoever for stupid mistakes against the Canucks, because they’ll make you pay. Seabrook has been okay this season. The bright side is that both have shown durability and toughness by playing all 82 games. On the opposing end, the Canucks’ top pairing on the blue line is composed of Dan Hamhuis, who we lit up last year when he was on the Predators, and the always-testy Kevin Bieksa, who never ceases to find an opportunity to run his mouth. Hamhuis plays much like Duncan Keith, not much physicality but methodical in his defensive stick work on opponents to go with smooth skating. Neither Hamhuis or Bieksa are gifted offensively, but the Canucks offense is more than sufficient to make up for their defensemen’s offensive capabilities.
The Canucks second pairing of defense is where it gets scary. Christian Ehrhoff and Alex Edler both have matured and have played phenomenal hockey this year. Also, as said before, we don’t have forwards like Byfuglien and Ladd to rough these kids up anymore. These two might cause us the most trouble. Hjalmarsson and Campbell’s soup should be solid, although they haven’t did anything special this year. We can only hope Campbell doesn’t cough up the puck and is able to stay back on defense when we need him.
The last pairing of Canucks is the testicle-lacking Sami Salo and Aaron Rome. The Hawks’ last lines should be able to crush these guys to the puck, considering Salo plays softer than Cottonelle for his 6-3 frame. I have no idea who the heck Rome is, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s replaced by Keith Ballard, whose play reminds me of dog poo so far this year. Campoli and Leddy make up a serviceable pair for the Hawks. Campoli is proven, but Leddy will, at times, have me nearly soiling my pants. Considering he’s a 20 year old rookie, he’s bound to make some mistakes, so I can’t ask for much from him.
Advantage: Hawks by a hair
In the NHL Playoffs, nothing is more important than good goaltending. A super hot goaltender can single handedly lead a team to a Cup, and the Canucks are fortunate to have a pretty damn good one. If not for
Brett Favre Tim Thomas over there in Boston, Bobby Lu may have locked himself up a Vezina trophy. Luongo is having his best year of his career to date, winning 38 games, allowing only 2.11 goals against per game, and holding a .928 save percentage, placing him in the top three in the NHL for those three categories. Unfortunately for the Hawks, we don’t have a big black guy to stand in front of him and harass him all game long, and that’s a problem. The Hawks will have to shoot low and force Luongo to give up rebounds like no other, because he’s been pretty unstoppable all year. However, if you can score early and get into his head, you may be able to score in bunches, as the Hawks did in their 7-1 victory over the Canucks early in the regular season (4 goals scored against Luongo).
Fortunately, goaltending for the Hawks is not as big of a question mark as it was going into the playoffs last year with Antti Niemi. Unfortunately, we don’t have the stalwart defense to bail our goalie out like last year, so the kid named Crawford will have to fend on his own. In his first full year in the NHL, Crawford is one of two goalies (next to Vezina-bound Tim Thomas) to win 30 games in less than 60 appearances (he has 57 appearances) and is 7th in the league with a 2.30 goals against average. Crawford will have to get hot and stand on his head if the Hawks want to see the semifinals.
The Canucks are the clear victor when it comes down to special teams. Their number one rank in power play and number three rank in penalty kill are main reasons why they are possibly the best team in the NHL. The Blackhawks have a 23.1% power play, ranking them fourth best in the NHL, but are absolutely pitiful on the penalty kill, ranking 25th in the league. As said before, staying out of the box and getting opposing players in the box will be the key to winning the series.
Joel Quenneville Stanley Cups = 1
Alain Vigneault Stanley Cups = 0
Even though this song kind of sucks, it’s fitting for the Hawks. We may have snuck into the playoffs by a hair, but nothing’s “Over” yet.
Although we are an eight seed and they are a one seed, the numbers mean absolutely zilch in hockey. Since 1994, eights have beat ones in the first round almost 30% of the time. Hockey is a game of consistency in the playoffs, and the team with the consistent goaltending will likely go deep in the playoffs.
This series is bound to be a tug-of-war, like previous series. I don’t see either team winning outright, so this will definitely go to either six or seven games. The Hawks know these guys pretty well, but ultimately I don’t see them advancing without the depth that they had to ship out in the offseason last year. I’m not giving the Canucks a huge advantage, but it’s more than likely that they will win with virtually the same team that they had last year. On the bright side, the Hawks are still one of the youngest NHL teams and will compete for the Cup for at least the next decade, if not longer.
Series Winner: Canucks in seven
Hawks MVP: Patrick Sharp
Canucks MVP: Ryan Kesler
Hopefully the Hawks prove me dead wrong.