2010 NHL Playoff Preview: San Jose Sharks vs. Chicago Blackhawks

It's probably fitting that the two best teams during the Western Conference this season are set to play one another later this week for a chance to head to the Stanley Cup Finals.

On paper, the Chicago Blackhawks are the better team, and likely the best team in the NHL. However, they have struggled with consistency since March of this season, playing .500 hockey down the stretch. That much was evident in their opening matchup against Nashville, where they needed a miracle in the United Center to avoid going down 3-2 in the series to the Predators. Marian Hossa committed a five minute boarding penalty by sending Dan Hamhuis into the boards with roughly a minute left in the game, and the Blackhawks were forced to pull their goaltender while shorthanded to obtain the equalizer. Patrick Kane got one by Pekka Rinne with thirteen seconds left, and after killing a four minute power play in overtime, Hossa emerged from the box to get the game winner.

These same inconsistencies plagued Chicago against Vancouver-- game one saw them get run out their own building by a vicious Canucks attack; the Hawks then rebounded by reeling off three straight wins. The final two games of the series were equally mercurial affairs, with the finale last concluding with a resounding 5-1 victory.

San Jose on the other hand has been fairly consistent in their output from night to night-- it's their greatest strength thus far, and is a huge positive going into this series. Continuing to impose their physical play upon Chicago and grinding it out in the corners will be the only road to success. Against Detroit, a team who shares some similarities with Chicago in that their transition game will kill you, the Sharks avoided the neutral zone and blueline turnovers that plagued them during the regular season. It's definitely an essential , because trying to play run and gun with the Blackhawks will do nothing but get you absolutely torched.

Both teams boast an excellent crop of forwards who have done some serious damage this postseason, with scoring depth on lines one through three. The bluelines have both been consistent and Antti Niemi, despite being the obvious weak link on the Chicago roster, has shown that he is good enough to obtain wins behind Duncan Keith and crew.

The excitement surrounding this series is enormous-- it has the potential to be the best Western Conference Final since Anaheim-Detroit in 2007, a series that has defined the last step out of the West since the lockout. The Blackhawks walked into this season on a red carpet after making the playoffs for only the second time in nineteen seasons; the Sharks walked in on eggshells after a dissappointing postseason against the Anaheim Ducks the previous year.

They both walked out of the second round with a whole lot more to prove.

I have a post dedicated to special teams later this week-- Chicago and San Jose both have great PK's, and the Hawks led the league in shorties during both the regular and postseason-- but let's take a look at the three basic areas comprising both teams.

Forwards

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Chicago is a hybrid of Colorado and Detroit in the transition game-- while the Red Wings don't possess a lot of individual speed, they move the puck up the ice quickly with tape to tape passes and can kill you in transition. Colorado on the other hand has a lot of individuals who can get around defenseman, but lacked the zone possession and maturity that the Blackhawks will bring to the table.

In other words, the Blackhawks bring the perfect storm of speed and skill to the table.

Captain Jonathan Toews leads the NHL in points during this postseason, and will likely see a heavy dose of Marc-Edouard Vlasic in HP Pavilion this series. He'll skate with Patrick Kane on Chicago's top line, and like San Jose, they've rotated the third forward in and out during the postseason. All three of these players are dangerous offensively-- Toews is primarily the playmaker who is defensively responsible and Kane brings the dynamic goal-scoring ability. They can beat you in open ice, work the puck down low, and utilize the high cycle more than any team I've seen in the league. Kane has a tendency to carry the puck all the way up from the halfboards to the point, and despite his smaller frame, protects the puck quite well. Toews is just an all around workhorse.

The question of whether or not to attempt to muscle the Chicago forwards out of the crease is already answered at this point-- as we saw against Detroit, Todd McLellan has decided that letting opposing forwards run around in front of the net is allowable as long as the San Jose defenseman can tie up their sticks in front. Whether or not the Sharks defenseman can do so is another question entirely-- Dustin Byfuglien comes in at a whopping 6'4, 260 pounds, which is about sixty pounds heavier than Holmstrom. That being said, Byfuglien is about as streaky as they come. All four of his postseason goals came in the last three games against Vancouver, and he's been an up and down player all season long.

The rest of Chicago's top nine forwards are dangerous as well. Kris Versteeg has a wicked wrist shot and good speed. Patrick Sharp has a knack for scoring big goals and has a nice shot, Marian Hossa can carry the puck in all zones with good goal scoring ability. Both of these players are strong defensively, and along with Toews, John Madden, and Dave Bolland, will chip in on one of the league's best penalty kills.

The list literally goes on and on when it comes to Chicago's scoring depth, and compared to San Jose, it is unlikely the Sharks will have the edge in this category on paper. As we've mentioned before however, consistency is the one area where the Sharks have an advantage. The keys to overcoming the Hawks offensive depth will be taking care of the puck in the neutral zone and not getting away from the physical forecheck that they have used to wear down teams all postseason long. You can't open it up against Chicago, because they will expose your blueline. And since the Sharks haven't played run and gun all postseason, they're on the right path to taking care of that aforementioned blueline.

It's likely the Sharks try and keep this to a three line series as it was against Detroit, giving Scott Nichol and company limited minutes except in shorthanded situations. We'll get to this later on, but I wouldn't be surprised to see seven defenseman dress again.

The good news is that Joe Thornton is beginning to get rolling after Joe Pavelski carried the team through the beginning of the postseason, and the penalty kill has been stellar as it has all year long. Continuing to pound the puck down low and work the cycle limits Chicago's ability to play with the open ice they crave, and if the Sharks are able to do that they will find success. With the top two lines beginning to play their best hockey at the same time, it's hard to envision how the Sharks would be completely outplayed in this area. The third line has been very good during the majority of their shifts as well, but will need to steal a few goals throughout of the series in order to keep the Sharks on top of the scoreboard. Couture and Malhotra are more than capable of doing so, especially if HTML is split up and Marleau rides shotgun on that third line with Mitchell up top.

Edge: Wash. Push goes to Chicago if they figure out their consistency issues.

Defense

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It may sound like a broken record at this point, but San Jose's defense will be put to the test against a very quick Chicago team. A lot of that starts in the offensive end where getting pucks deep and battling it out in the corners will keep the Blackhawks from getting the puck up the ice on the breakout. The other side of the coin comes with what the Sharks did against Detroit-- funnel forwards from the middle of the zone to the outside, and break down their speed by pinning puck carriers along the boards.

As for the top unit, Chicago's is phenomenal. No introduction is needed to Norris Trophy nominee Duncan Keith, whose shutdown game and offensive acumen make him one of the most complete defenseman in the league. Brent Seabrook serves as a noteworthy compliment to Keith, bringing the snarl and physical play to the pairing. They will square off against Joe Thornton all series long. Great matchup to watch, and Jumbo will have a battle on his hands.

The second pairing of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brian Campbell contains many of the same characteristics, with a lot less pop and flash. Brian Campbell, as most Sharks fans know, is a quick defenseman who can move the puck up the ice very quickly. What he has in offensive ability however is shortchanged by his defensive timidness-- getting on top of him physically on the forecheck will expose these inadequacies and lead to some prolonged offensive opportunities. The fact that he seems to still be dealing with an injury sustained in the latter end of the year after being checked from behind by Alex Ovechkin does nothing to help his case. Ryane Clowe should be in good hands protecting the puck down low with Campbell hanging on to him for dear life, and this is an area the Sharks can exploit in the offensive zone. However, Niklas Hjalmarsson is anything but a pushover physically and is a guy to really watch for. He's not going to wow you with any sort of offensive outburts, but defensively he's extremely sound. Definitely underrated.

Brent Sopel skates like Charlie Brown, hunching his shoulders and taking awkward strides. He also looks like the love child of Jody Shelley and Teemu Selanne. Either way, he's a decent depth defenseman and just plugs the holes. Same goes for Jordan Henry. Demers and Huskins probably have the edge in this category.

As mentioned above, I think McLellan stays away from the fourth line again this season. As we're all aware of, Jed Ortmeyer has been banged up for awhile and is floating in and out of the lineup. That leaves Helminen to fill that role, and when he's seeing lower end minutes, there's not a whole lot of use out there. Bringing Wallin into the fold as a seventh defenseman does a lot to balance out the depth of San Jose, and makes the unit stronger from top to bottom.

All in all, Chicago's defense is a really good group in the top four, and gets the edge over San Jose despite the Sharks playing well in this area all postseason. Chicago didn't have extremely low shot totals all season long for nothing.

Edge: Chicago

Goaltending

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This is a pretty obvious call in San Jose's favor. Evgeni Nabokov has been good this postseason, none better than his game five performance against Detroit. Concerns about him being overworked were premature, and compared to Antti Niemi, will be a crucial player in this series for San Jose. He can definitely be the difference maker in this series for San Jose.

Niemi is a solid backup goaltender forced to play in a starter's body. However, the defensive unit in front of him, along with a crop of forwards who are committed to the defensive end of the ice, makes his job less difficult. The Robin to the Blackhawks defensive Batman. If the Sharks can crack the Chicago defense open they will be fine, because Niemi won't be stealing many games for the Blackhawks.

Edge: San Jose

Star-divide

It's going to be a barnburner of the series, and before this postseason started, I would have told you that the Blackhawks should be the clear favorites. And on paper, they probably are. However, so much has gone right for San Jose this postseason. Their defensive presence has improved and they have gotten some big performances down the middle from their top two centers. Everyone is clicking on the same page right now, and a huge five game series win over Detroit was a great way for the franchise to put some postseason demons behind them.

Am I concerned about the blueline? Yes. Am I worried that a Chicago team making a second straight trip to the Western Conference Finals will probably shake their inconsistency and bring it from the drop of the puck in game one? Yes. But do I fear what lies ahead? No.

It just feels that despite being a little less dangerous on paper, the Sharks have bought into what it takes to make a deep run. They're playing like the best team in the Western Conference right now.

Prediction: San Jose in seven.

God save us all.

 

Go Sharks.

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