Here is a look at what most likely will be the feistiest of the second round series in this year's NHL Playoffs.
1. Crease Crashing
In last year’s series, the Blackhawks used Dustin Byfuglien’s large body to screen and irritate Luongo to no end. In this year’s playoffs we have seen some questionable goals both allowed and disallowed on the premise of ‘subtle interference’. Look no further than the Washington Capitals’ disallowed goal in Game 7 of their series with Montreal, while in other series there were goalies being bumped or having their sticks whacked before a shot just to rattle them or get them out of position. Byfuglien had been playing on defense to cover for the losses of Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson, but will now resume his role as a top 9 forward – with the primary purpose of disrupting Luongo’s rhythm and his ability to get into position to make a save.
The Vancouver Canucks meanwhile had success putting Steve Bernier in front of opposing goalies, as Bernier collected four goals in six games. “It’s been a part of the NHL game for years” said Luongo. He’s right. While Dustin Byfuglien is especially difficult to move, his tactics are no different than Tomas Holmstrom on Detroit, or Ryan Smyth on Los Angeles, whom Luongo became well acquainted with in the first round of this year’s playoffs.
That being said, the battles in front of the net will be some of the most interesting in this series. A key goaltender interference penalty, or questionable goal may alter momentum within the series.
2. Something to Prove
Many players on both squads have something to prove heading into the series. For the Blackhawks, Jonathan Toews will wish to avenge what some deemed a poor showing in the first round, while Patrick Kane will look to avenge his Olympic loss to Roberto Luongo. On the Canucks side of the coin, Roberto Luongo will look to continue his strong play and regain the respect about his playoff game that many feel he lost in the decisive game 6 of last year’s series. Luongo was shelled for seven goals in a 7-5 loss and many questioned his ability to perform in a big game on the grand stage.
Luongo of course has played now in numerous Olympic games including winning the gold medal game with Team Canada this past winter in Vancouver (his NHL hometown). Still, opinions persist that he is not yet a big game goaltender, and those tags likely will not be removed from his reputation until he wins a Stanley Cup. For Canucks fans, they hope that comes this year.
For the Hawks meanwhile, their rookie netminder Antti Niemi undoubtedly wishes to prove that he is a starting goaltender and that the Hawks made no mistakes my naming him over Cristobal Huet, or venturing into the trade market to pick up a netminder at the NHL trade deadline
3. Burrows & Kesler
Burrows and Kesler have a short but storied reputation against the Chicago Blackhawks. Two of the NHL’s most irritating players to play against, the pair have been the heart and soul of Vancouver hockey for a couple of seasons now. Having taken on more consistent and prominent roles this year, much will be expected from them offensively in this series. The Canucks managed to beat the Kings with nothing more than two empty net goals from the pair, but if they are to prevail over the much deeper Blackhawks, Vancouver will need more contributions from their second line (Burrows – Kesler – Raymond).
That line will likely be responsible not only for contributing on offense, but more often than not shutting down the Blackhawks top line which will include Patrick Kane, and likely a combination of players including Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Troy Brouwer, and potentially Dustin Byfuglien.
Burrows hair-pulling feud with Duncan Keith from last year’s regular season, and Kesler’s war of words with Andrew Ladd should be on the backburner, along with any other personal agendas, but both players will be at the center of the brutish, physical play expected in this series, and both must not only survive but thrive.
Burrows and Kesler will also need to be the strong penalty killers they have been in their time in the NHL. Time will tell if the pair are impact players in the series, scoring timely goals, while shutting down the opposing team’s forwards and perhaps drawing the occasional unnecessary penalty, or else they could be shut out on the scoreboard and ineffective at shutting down some of the league’s best forwards.
4. Defensive Depth / Mobility
Both the Chicago Blackhawks and the Vancouver Canucks have questions on defense. While the Canucks are an injury away from a very thin blue line, the Hawks are not much further ahead. With Willie Mitchell still out, the Canucks lose one of the NHL’s better shutdown defenders. That being said, the team’s defense should be a bit more capable than last year with the younger and speedier Christian Ehrhoff replacing an aging Mattias Ohlund who appeared to be exposed at times for his reduced mobility.
The Canucks will utilize Alexander Edler and Sami Salo as a shutdown pairing, with Christian Ehrhoff and Shane O’Brien as their second unit. Their third pairing of Kevin Bieksa and with Aaron Rome, Andrew Alberts or Nolan Baumgartner may make some Canucks fans cringe, and they certainly will be under the microscope in terms of how they are able to handle a team like Chicago who provide a greater challenge with a more robust attack and greater depth than the Los Angeles Kings did in round one.
Ehrhoff and Edler will be key if the Canucks are to get the puck out of their zone with speed and not be hemmed in by the Blackhawks relentless and swift forecheck.
On the Blackhawks side, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will have to continue their strong player and shutdown the Sedin twins. Henrik and Daniel have enjoyed a career year with Henrik winning the Art Ross trophy, and the experience they have gathered in the past few playoff seasons appears to be paying off, as both Henrik and Daniel are no longer suffering in the post-season, but using their exceptional strength and conditioning to thrive in it – especially in the late going of games.
The twins, along with the rest of the Canucks were especially strong in the third period, and the young legs of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will have to keep up. Beyond Keith and Seabrook, the Blackhawks may have some question marks as well. Brian Campbell is an exceptional offensive defenseman, but Campbell, ex-two-time-Canuck Brent Sopel, and Niklas Hjallmarson will have to contend with the Canucks improved depth in scoring that extends to the third and fourth lines.
Sufficed to say, whether you are a Blackhawks fan or Canucks fan, you hope your defensemen stay healthy.
All in all, both teams have strengths and weaknesses, and both teams have improved since last year. The biggest storyline of all may not be a result of any difference in personnel in terms of skill, but moreso how much the Canucks wish to avenge last year’s loss, and how much the Blackhawks wish to assert that it was no fluke.