NHL Western Conference Finals Scorecard

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by Peter Christian and Bryan Vickroy

Today the Western Conference Finals begin with the Chicago Blackhawks lining up against the San Jose Sharks. There is no shortage of story lines for this series (such as former Badger linemates playing against each other or the mayors of each city making lame wagers on the series winner) but sometimes you need to just compare the teams on the ice. Thankfully, for you, Peter Christian and Bryan Vickroy have the goods for you with a head to head breakdown of the series. Peter will be representing the Blackhawks and Bryan the Sharks.

Offense

(PC) The Blackhawks have a fierce top line that jump starts the whole offense. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are among the most exciting young uber-talents in the league. They play side by side, are currently responsible for 13 of the team’s 40 postseason goals. Behind them on the 2nd line are Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, both scoring-minded forwards themselves. However, the ability to find the score sheet from the rest of the team drops off pretty quickly. That’s not saying the Blackhawks are inept outside their top 4 scorers, but that they don’t usually get consecutive scoring performances from the rest of their forwards.

In order to succeed over the Sharks, Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and Dave Bolland are going to have to outplay their Sharks counterparts.

(BV) Sharks have weapons up and down the lineup who can score at will.  They’re basically a team with the depth of two top lines.  The scoring well tends to run dry in the playoffs, so they must continue to keep the pressure on and not lose their scoring touch.  San Jose has been the best team in hockey the last two years because they put goals home.  Joe Pavelski has become the breakout star of 2010. After his Olympic heroics, he’s displayed a penchant for clutch postseason goals.

Advantage: San Jose

Dan-Boyle-Sharks

Defense

(PC) The Blackhawks have a lot of name recognition on their blue line and yet they rely HEAVILY on the play of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Keith logs more than 27 minutes of ice time each game and Seabrook gets more than 22. Injuries and inconsistent play has hampered the defensive unit this season and at times made the Blackhawks vulnerable to odd man rushes and prolonged play inside their own zone. It’s obvious Brian Campbell is still recovering from the broken collarbone that kept him out for about 5 weeks as he’s still not at the top of his game. If Keith or Seabrook ever start showing signs of fatigue, the Hawks are in trouble.

(BV) You may not know who any of  the Sharks’ defensemen are, but trust me, the rest of the NHL does.  This corps is deep, experienced, and not afraid to try and put a goal home by themselves.  Strong positional play allows the forwards to fly up ice, and good goal-tending allows them to take more chances than usual.  Not overly physical, but they won’t shy away from contact either.  Occasionally, they will lose focus of players or game situation which lead to scoring opportunities.

Advantage: San Jose

Can Niemi outshine Nabokov?

Goaltending

(PC) Antti Niemi hasn’t been exactly rock solid throughout the playoffs, but he hasn’t really cost the Blackhawks either. He’s been up to the task when challenged and more than a handful of the 30 goals he’s allowed in the 12 post season games have been due to his defense not doing their jobs. He’s also proved that, as a rookie, he can handle the pressure and the stress that the playoffs put on goalies. He’s got the physical abilities to be elite and it appears he has the mental wherewithal to stand up to the adversity of the game.

(BV)  Evgeni Nabokov may be one of the elite goaltenders in the league.  He has the stats to back it up, and a long resume of quality wins.  However, he is one of the biggest head cases in net.  He’s melted down in so many big spots, including the Olympics this year for Russia.  Very little depth or experience behind Nabokov, so it’s Evgeni’s brain the Sharks will live and die with.  Expect Chicago to run him early and often, trying to rattle him and psych him out.

Advantage: Chicago


Coaching

(PC) I would argue that coaching with a mustache as sweet as Joel Quenneville’s is the only advantage a team needs, but Q-Stache is reliable on the bench as well. He’s got 10 years previous playoff experience and has been to the Western Conference Finals twice before. I’ve got faith in Quenneville and so does the Chicago locker room.

(BV) Coach Todd McLellan seems to have learned from his playoff baptism last year, and his tinkering with this team have led to optimum gains, so far.  Much of this team has never experience the pressure ratcheted up this high, including McLellan.  If he can keep a steady hand and not let this team fold under pressure again, he has a chance of winning the mind games with the Q-‘stache.

Advantage: Chicago

Special Teams
(PC) The Blackhawks power play was destructive versus Vancouver. With the skill of the Blackhawks moving the puck around the zone and Dustin Byfuglien’s big butt in front of the net, the power play recipe for Chicago has been on fire. That mix should be able to find success against San Jose as long as they don’t struggle to gain control of the offensive zone.

(BV) The best team when not 5 on 5 during the regular season has cooled a touch in the postseason, but the Sharks are still dangerous.  Somewhat passive PK leads to rebounds, but otherwise they’ve been solid.  Their power play is a danger to score everytime they control the puck.  Have a penchant for over beautifying a play and missing opportunities.

Advantage: Chicago
Shark Tank
Atmosphere
(PC) The United Center has the ability to come unglued. Or I should say, it did. From all appearances the crowd hasn’t been its best for the Blackhawks this postseason. Our very own Mr. Banks has voiced his theory to me that the overpricing and corporate sponsors has left the rowdy fan to watch from their couch or at a bar. If the Hawks fans want to get their team to the Stanley Cup Finals, they’ll need to step up and rattle the Sharks team when the step in the United Center.

(BV) The Shark Tank has been one of the toughest places to play in the NHL since the Sharks moved in.  Tight quarters and a deafening roar greet visitors who dare enter the jaws of the shark.  Opponents want to gain control early and quiet them from the start.  Like true Californians, they tend to lose interest without constant action or affection from the home squad.  If the Sharks jump out early though, there’s little chance of swimming back up current here.

Advantage: Chicago
I'll give you grit
Grittiness
(PC) The Blackhawks, for all of their fancy skill, are a gritty team at heart. All those players that don’t consistently score are on the roster because they fight for pucks in the corners and in the neutral zone, they chip away at the opposing team’s psyche and consistently try and draw stupid penalties. Players like Adam Burish, Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, Troy Brouwer, Andrew Ladd and Ben Eager are out there for those exact reasons.

(BV) Probably the Sharks’ poorest attribute.  Past playoff failures, lack of scoring, and mental instability have all led to San Jose being labeled with the dreaded tag of “soft.”  Joe Pavelski has given this team a shot of adrenaline when it needs it at times, and the bottom lines have played, and contributed in big ways so far.
They would prefer to keep the game uptempo and clean as opposed to a grinder.  But this is the Wild, Wild, West, and very few teams have, or have shown, true grit.
Advantage: Chicago
Karma
(PC) After years of losing and an owner who was indifferent to the fans’ perception of the team, the Blackhawks have rebounded to become one of the league’s best again under the ownership of Rocky Wirtz. Wirtz has put money and effort into improving the product on the ice as well as the incentive for fans to become more passioned about the team. The efforts to make this “Original Six” franchise viable again are likely going to be rewarded by the Hockey Gods sooner rather than later.

(BV) Karma is not so good to the happy-go-lucky folks in Silicon Valley.  Past failures are a big burden on this team.  Although Patrick Marleau has shown signs of playoff scoring this year, he still has yet to come through in a clutch moment that a player of his stature should.  Joe Thornton is another player who can’t seem to strike at the opportune time.  Dany Heatley has a royal caravan worth of baggage over his years.  The Sharks are finally a respected team after years of cellar dwelling, however they need to get over the hump before they are considered one of the true elite teams in NHL history.
Advantage: Chicago
The Cup is the prize, not Hayden.
Expectations
(PC) After a run to the Western Conference Finals last season and the addition of big money free agent Marian Hossa the thought around the league was that the Blackhawks were aiming for the Stanley Cup. A second consecutive final four finish would be nice, but probably a bit below what the realistic goal was. Even though the Blackhawks are the 2 seed in the West, they may have more pressure on them to advance past the Sharks.

(BV) Some of the pressure to win is off now that they’ve made it back to the conference finals.  However, we live in a 24/7 world now, and we require instant gratification.  If they perform poorly, the doubts will return and cloud this team’s objectives.  They must stay calm, stay focused, and not give into the runaway Blackhawk Bandwagon.  With so many upsets happening in this postseason,  the top team out west has flown under the radar so far.
Advantage: San Jose
Miscellaneous
(PC) Chicago is not exactly in a do or die situation. They’ve got much of their core under contract and their top stars have yet to reach their ceiling. It’s not unrealistic to think that this type of postseason run is something that the Blackhawks could do for the next 5-6 years. Last year’s experience of playing in the Western Conference Finals might be just what the team needed to know what is necessary to take that extra step this year.

(BV) This is a team that was in the exact position that the Blackhawks are now just a few years ago.  Youth had gained the experience needed, wise moves had bolstered a deep lineup, and the team steadily crept upward in the standings.  Following the next line in evolution, a Stanley Cup appearance looms for the Sharks.  Lose now and this roster’s chance to win together may have jumped the shark.
Advantage: San Jose
Overall
(PC) The Blackhawks have youth, experience, speed, scoring and grit. Typically that would mean a team has an inside track to the Stanley Cup but this year, not so much. Mainly because the Blackhawks are playing a team that also have some or most of those qualities and might be just a little bit better. If they can take one of two in San Jose, the series will be in the Blackhawks’ hands. As long as they don’t continue to have “let down” games at home of course.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 6

(BV) These have been the best two teams in the West this year, and the playoffs have done little to prove to anyone otherwise.  This could be the start of an epic playoff rivalry in the future.  This series will most likely come down to who makes the fewest mistakes, and who keeps things in the right direction when the momentum changes.  The Sharks have home ice, though both teams are capable of stealing multiple wins on the road.  Mojo, not the helper monkey but the good vibrations, seems to be working in Chicago’s favor.  However, San Jose has matched everyone, and their own, expectation so far.  The Sharks find an edge somewhere and pull out a Stanley Cup appearance.
Prediction: Sharks in 7

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Comments

  1. paulmbanks says

    I greatly enjoy some of your “alt” descriptions of your pics! Having fun with that process makes it so much easier and enjoyable doesn’t it?

    I’m loving Pete’s prediction here. Vick’s not as much, but it’s a long series and we’ll see. I’ve seen lots of series previews in newspapers and stuff, and they’ve had off, def, intangibles, etc….but I think this is the 1st I’ve read which had all those and karma, grittiness…..kudos gentlemen!

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