Saturday, May 1, 2010

Canucks & Blackhawks - Anybody's Series

The Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks renew hostilities tonight as their Western Conference semi-final begins in Chicago at 5:00 p.m. For the second straight year the two teams meet in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Canucks are looking for redemption as Chicago knocked Vancouver out in six games last year.

These are the two best offensive teams in the Western Conference. Both have plenty of skill, speed, and depth up front. The Canucks led the NHL with six 25+ goal scorers, including the Art Ross trophy winner Henrik Sedin. The Hawks were not far behind, having six 20+ goal scorers, and both Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien had 17. It is very difficult to find who has the edge in the offensive department between the two rivals.

Just like offensively, the two teams match-up very well defensively as well. Vancouver is missing key defenseman Willie Mitchell to post concussion symptoms. Chicago is missing Kim Johnsson to a concussion and Brian Campbell is finally back from a broken collarbone but is not yet 100%. Both teams have also had a young swedish defenseman step up in the first round. Vancouver's Alex Edler was incredible against the Kings notching one goal and two assists and an amazing + seven. He was also a beast in the physical department as well. Chicago's Nik Hjalmarsson was just as good, also notching one goal and two assists and being + six. It could come down to both teams third pairings and overall health to find an advantage here.

This series is so tight that it could very well come down to goaltending and special teams. The edge in goaltending is easily held by the Canucks. Veteran all-star goaltender Roberto Luongo played better and better as the series went on against Los Angeles, and Luongo is as determined and focused as ever to play Chicago. Luongo can be the best goalie in the NHL when he is focused, this is a scary thought for Chicago and their long suffering fans. Luongo has had an entire calendar year to dwell on the painful loss to the Blackhawks in last years Western Conference semi-final. He is ready.

At the other end will be rookie goalie Antii Niemi, who took the number one job away from Cristobal Huet. It is always a question mark when a team is relying on a rookie goalie in the playoffs, especially when the team is a legitimate Cup contender like the Blackhawks. Despite being a rookie however, Niemi has posted impressive statistics. He was in the top five in GAA, with 2.25, and shutouts with 7, in just 35 starts. Niemi has shown the ability to bounce back after disappointing outings. But this is the playoffs, so you never know how a rookie will respond.

These teams hate each other. It does not take a genius to figure out how important discipline will be in this series. During the regular season Vancouver's power play ranked 6th with 20.9%, versus Chicago's 17.7% which ranked 16th. Chicago's penalty kill ranked 4th while Vancouver's was 17th. Again very similar since both teams power plays versus penalty kills rank about the same.

This series is too close to call. The Blackhawks are still very young so experience is on the side of the Canucks. The Hawks also should have the edge in grit, with having so many western Canadian boys on their roster who love playing in Vancouver. Should be a classic either way.

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