Monday, April 11, 2011

Canucks, Blackhawks renew rivalry

Dustin Byfuglien taunts Canucks fans
For the third time is as many years, the Vancouver Canucks will take on the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL Playoffs.  This time around, the teams are playing each other in the first round, as opposed to the second round.

A year removed from their Stanley Cup triumph in 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks are a much different team, as are the Vancouver Canucks.  Game One goes Wednesday night in Vancouver at 7pm PST.

Wednesday, April 13 at Vancouver, 10:00 p.m.
Friday, April 15 at Vancouver, 10:00 p.m.
Sunday, April 17 at Chicago, 8:00 p.m.
Tuesday, April 19 at Chicago, 8:00 p.m.
*Thursday, April 21 at Vancouver, 10:00 p.m.
*Sunday, April 24 at Chicago, 8:00 p.m.
*Tuesday, April 26 at Vancouver, TBD

Last year, the Vancouver Canucks wanted revenge for a second round exit the year before.  The Canucks opened the series strong, with a 5-1 drubbing of the Blackhawks, but a shorthanded goal by Patrick Sharp, and last minute goal by Kris Versteeg brought the Blackhawks a victory in game two, and proved to swing the series in the Hawks favour.  Canucks fans will be asking themselves, what will be different this year?

Let's analyze both teams.

Chicago Blackhawks
Jonathan Toews has been dynamite all year, as has Patrick Sharp.  Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa provide strong scoring up front, but they thin out a bit after that.  The health of Troy Brouwer and Dave Bolland with be an issue, and certainly this is a different Blackhawks team without the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, John Madden and Ben Eager.  Chicago is strong up front, but the like of Kopecky and Frolik may not provide the type of depth that the Hawks once enjoyed.

Is there finally a chink in the mighty armor of the Blackhawks?  Duncan Keith has still be very steady but has not enjoyed a campaign like last year's Norris-level performance.  That being said, Brent Seabrook has been steady.  Their penalty kill has struggled and depth on defense may be an issue, especially compared to the formidable Canucks defense.  Chicago will depend upon Seabrook and Keith to log big minutes to shut down one of the league's top lines, including the Sedin twins and Alex Burrows.

Rookie Corey Crawford has had a great year and asserted himself as the team's start over Marty Turco.  As Chicago prepares for the post-season, many may question Crawford's readiness for the post-season, but those questions will be answered by Antti Niemi.  Niemi's run last season proved that you can get some good performances from a rookie goaltender, and still win the Stanley Cup without an all-star netminder.

Andrew Ladd won't be around this time for the Blackhawks
The Blackhawks know what it takes to win.  Unfortunately for them, what helped them win last year was incredible depth, toughness and balance.  Many of the key players who helped them hoist the cup last spring are gone, and the Hawks have played a lot of hockey.  Their struggles at home, their poor penalty kill and inability to hold leads has really hurt them.  However, they can challenge the best team's in the league, and tease you with their skill and potential to be a top team in the league.  Moreover, the Blackhawks may be inside the Canucks heads after the past two seasons.  If Dave Bolland can pester the Sedins, and Kane and Toews can score as they did in the past, look out Vancouver.

Vancouver Canucks
The Vancouver Canucks boast the Art Ross Trophy Winner, the probable Selke Trophy Winner in Ryan Kesler, two fourty goal scorers, and considerable depth and faceoff proficiency.  Oh, and the league's best powerplay.  The Canucks were the class of the NHL and lead the league in goals scored.  While extolling their virtues can take some time, there are some reasons for concern.  If you wish to be picky, Chris Higgins and Mikael Samuelsson do not intimidate opposition netminders, though if Samuelsson can regain his form of last year, perhaps Kesler's line will be dangerous.  Vancouver will have to get production from the twins, and you can likely count on them providing it, but they also need secondary scoring.  The Hawks will likely try to make Ryan Kesler's life a living hell in order to make the Canucks a one line team.  The Canucks success largely hinges on Kesler's ability to ensure the team has a powerful second line.

Mason Raymond centering the third line in place of Manny Malthora may also raise some eyebrows, and this line will be helped when Raffi Torres returns for Game 3.

Vancouver finally has their top 6 defensemen healthy.  They likely have the deepest defense in the league.  Christian Ehrhoff and Alexander Edler usually play with the top forward line, and Bieksa and Hamhuis should be tasked with shutting down Jonathan Toews.  The third pairing will be Keith Ballard and Sami Salo.  This unit is a much improved unit over a season ago, as the Canucks were forced to play an injured Salo, along with Shane O'Brien and Andrew Alberts for extended minutes.  The team leaned heavily on Ehrhoff and Bieksa last year, and improved depth may do wonders this time around.

Roberto often gets a bad rap. His detractors seem to forget how magical he was against Dallas and Anaheim a couple of years ago, and how he shut down the St. Louis Blues in a sweep two seasons ago.  His key saves in overtime against Jack Johnson, and series altering save on Alexander Frolov's breakaway helped the Canucks beat LA.  The downside is Luongo has had little support in his series against the Blackhawks.  Parades of penalties, and lacklustre defending have not aided his stats.  That being said, Luongo hasn't really stolen any games for the team in their two series versus Chicago.

This year, Luongo will have to be at his best, and will have to steal one or two games for the Canucks to advance.

The Vancouver Canucks have been a big blue machine all year.  Despite injuries that ravaged their blue line, they won the Jennings trophy for having allowed the fewest goals.  The Hawks certainly pose the most formidable challenge of any lower seeded Western Conference team, especially for Vancouver.  In order to prevail, the Canucks need their strong goaltending to continue, and some scoring depth.  Their depth on defense may prove to be the difference in a series that will likely decide the future of this team for years to come.

If the Canucks overcome their nemesis and beat Chicago, they may well run all the way to the Stanley Cup.  On the other hand, a third loss in a row against Chicago will be catastrophic for this franchise.  In a storied 40th season, the Canucks have been the class of the NHL.  First overall in so many categories, expectations are huge.  Vancouver craves a Stanley Cup and will not settle for anything less than an improvement on past seasons.  This time around, the Canucks have better depth at forward, better defence, and better goaltending. They should win this series.  If they don't - heads may roll.

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