By Paul M. Banks
In two days, the Chicago Blackhawks will start their battle with the San Jose Sharks for Western Conference supremacy. And when the gauntlet is thrown down, there will be lots of trends and numbers to monitor. Here’s a look at how these guys got here, and what streaks to keep your eye on during the series:
Long Time Coming: Regardless of who emerges from his highly-anticipated series, the winning fan base will be celebrating a historic trip to the Stanley Cup Final. The Sharks have yet to appear in a Final, while the Blackhawks would be making their first appearance since 1992 and their second in 37 years.
San Jose Sharks
Jumbo Joe: C Joe Thornton enjoyed the finest playoff series of his 12-year NHL career in the Conference Semifinals victory over Detroit, recording single-series highs in goals (three) and points (eight). He scored the game-winner late in the third period of Game 2 and set up Patrick Marleau’s overtime winner in Game 3. Thornton enters the Western Conference Final with a six-game point streak and goals in three of his past four games.
Mr. Clutch: C Joe Pavelski led San Jose in scoring during its first-round series win over the Avalanche, tallying eight points (five goals, three assists) in six games. He scored a last-minute, game-tying goal in Game 2, notched the overtime winner in Game 4 and tallied the series-clinching goal in Game 6. He continued his heroics in the opening game of round two, tallying two goals including the game-winner and an assist in a 4-3 win over Detroit.
And His Wingmen: Pavelski’s line — he skated for the most part with Ryan Clowe and Devin Setoguchi — combined for nine goals and 22 points in the first round and accounted for almost half of the Sharks’ offense in their win over Colorado.
Toews On Fire: Chicago captain Jonathan Toews enters the Conference Final with an active nine-game scoring streak, tallying 19 points (six goals, 13 assists) in that span. He leads all scorers in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs with 6-14–20 in 12 games. Skating in his second NHL postseason, Toews has 33 points (13 goals, 20 assists) in 29 career postseason games. His 1.14 points-per-game pace is the best in Blackhawks history.
Superb Penalty-Killing: The Blackhawks ranked third in the League during the regular season with an 85.3% success rate and are second in the playoffs at 88.7%. Additionally, the Blackhawks are a threat to score: they notched a League-leading 13 shorthanded goals in the regular season and have added three more in the post-season. Their latest, Dave Bolland’s tally late in the second period at Vancouver Tuesday, gave the Blackhawks a 3-0 lead en route to a series-clinching 5-1 win over the Canucks in Game 6 of their Western Conference Semifinal.
Road Warriors: The Blackhawks are 5-1 on the road in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, outscoring the opposition 26-14. Their power-play is clicking at 32.1% away from home (nine for 28) and their penalty-killing success is 88.0% (22 for 25).
How They Got Here
The top-seeded Sharks defeated the Colorado Avalanche in six games in their Western Conference Quarterfinal series. San Jose came back from 1-0 and 2-1 series deficits through a tension-filled first four games before busting out with a lopsided victory in Games 5 and then pulling out Game 6. With their top-liners stymied, the Sharks followed the lead of a second line centered by Joe Pavelski, who scored three pivotal goals among his series-leading five.
The Sharks then dispatched the two-time defending Western Conference champion Detroit Red Wings 4-1 in the Conference Semifinals. Each Sharks win was a one-goal decision, coming in a variety of ways. They jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead and held on for a 4-3 win in Game 1, staged a two-goal, third-period rally to win by the same score in Game 2 and gained a stranglehold on the series by overcoming a two-goal deficit in the third period of a 4-3 overtime win at Detroit in Game 3. Joe Thornton led the Sharks in scoring with eight points (three goals, five assists).
The second-seeded Blackhawks defeated the Nashville Predators in six games in their Western Conference Quarterfinal series. Rallying from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits in the series, the ‘Hawks rode two Antti Niemi shutouts to get even through four games. They took their first lead in the series with a wild Game 5 victory in which they needed a Patrick Kane shorthanded goal with 14 seconds left in regulation to get to overtime, where Marian Hossa scored upon emerging from the penalty box. Chicago settled down to salt away the series upon emerging from a dizzying first period of Game 6 with a 4-3 lead.
For the second consecutive year the Blackhawks posted a six-game series victory over the Vancouver Canucks in the Conference Semifinals, clinching the series one year to the day after doing so in 2009. Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews was the series’ dominant figure, leading all scorers with 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in six games, highlighted by a five-point performance (3-2–5) in a 7-4 win at Vancouver in Game 4. The Blackhawks’ 6-3, 246-lb. forward Dustin Byfuglien was a fixture in front of the Vancouver goal, tallying four goals to match Toews for the club goal-scoring lead.
Regular-season series: Chicago won three of the four regular-season meetings, two in overtime, outscoring the Sharks 17-11. Defenseman Duncan Keith led all scorers with seven points, all assists, and RW Troy Brouwer tallied 3-2–5, was +5, scored one overtime goal and helped set up the other. Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov went 1-1-2 with a 3.78 GAA for the Sharks, while Cristobal Huet was in the ‘Hawks net for all four games, posting a 3-1 record and 2.73 GAA.
Unfamiliar Foes: The Sharks and Blackhawks have never met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, nor have any current Sharks or Blackhawks faced the other in the postseason. Blackhawks starting goaltender Antti Niemi has never faced the Sharks in regular-season play either.