We keep on waiting (waiting), waiting on the West to change
With the San Jose Sharks still waiting on their third round opponent, a debate on the merits of having an extended period of rest has surfaced.
Receiving the most rest possible at this point is a net gain at this point in the season. Undisclosed and public injuries are prevalent right now, and with an already arduous 82 game regular season already in the books, fatigue plays a big factor in the players' legs. Habits by and large have already been formed, both positive and negative-- more games and practice serve little function in the long run, only helping to fine tune the areas that were lacking in the previous outings. Get your wins, get out of dodge.
At the conclusion of the first game of the Western Conference Finals, this question will be used to provide a quick and compartmentalized answer explaining the outcome. If the Sharks lose, they lost their edge with a week off. And if the Sharks win, they were able to receive the rest they needed. However, the fact of the matter is that these are professional athletes who know their bodies better than you know the palm of your hand. Their mental makeup is as good as it's been for awhile now. Results are all that matters at this point in the year, and hedging your bets by stating that the mental side of the game will suffer due to an extended break doesn't make much sense.
At any rate, on the docket tonight at 6:30 PM we have Chicago heading into Vancouver with a 3-2 lead in the series. The Blackhawks have been a hot mess of inconsistency since March of this season, going .500 down the stretch and struggling against Nashville in the first round. It took a miracle at the end of game five to avoid being a game away from elimination, and since then they've continued their hot and cold ways. A 5-1 shellacking in game one led to an offensive outburst in two through five, only to be followed up with a wet fart of a performance Sunday night.
Vancouver has also been anemic-- they looked lost at times against Los Angeles, dominant in others. Willie Mitchell's injury has been a huge loss for them on the blueline since the middle of the year, and with Sammi Salo at home with his kids for the time being, containing the Blackhawks forwards just got a whole lot more difficult for them to pull off.
If I was the Supreme Overlord of Everything Under The Moon, I would prefer it if the Sharks drew Vancouver, and not just for the "rest vs. rust reasons." A seven game series is obviously a positive, but there are some matchups I like a lot better against the Canucks.
You have to think the Blackhawks are due to break out of their current funk sometime soon, and if they do, it would be a return to the team that I've felt all season long was the best in the Western Conference when everything is clicking. Their defense is world class with two pairings who could give San Jose's top lines some major fits, and their forward group is just as good if not better than the Sharks. The one area where the Blackhawks would be at a huge disadvantage however, is in goal. Although Chris Osgood played behind Detroit teams who were built exactly the same way and has multiple Cup rings, Antti Niemi's pads (or lack thereof) are definitely an area where the Sharks can take advantage.
The opposite is what scares me about Vancouver. No matter how much grief Roberto Luongo gets for not being a big-game goaltender, there is no one in their right mind who can state with a straight face that he is unable to steal at least two playoff games and put his team into the next round. The good news is that Luongo really hasn't looked like himself this entire season, and seems to have trouble with inconsistency from game to game. Still though, it's Luongo. Counting him out has so much potential to put egg on your face I won't even delve into the possibility. Outside of him however, the Canucks can never seem to get the best of San Jose. Their forwards are obviously very good, but the cycle game that the Sedins like to play fits in well with a Sharks blueline that isn't especially quick put can muscle players off pucks in the corners. Alain Vigneault has moved farther and father away from the trap this season ever since Mattias Ohlund left, and while he may reinstate it with a depleted blueline, the question is whether or not he has the talent left to run it effectively is up for debate.
A revitalized Chicago team one step away from the Stanley Cup Finals gives me more concern than a date with Vancouver-- they're definitely the scarier squad for San Jose if Luongo continues his mediocre postseason.
Either way the cookie crumbles tonight however, San Jose is playing the best hockey out of any other team in the Western Conference right now. Both potential opponents have their perks (the Blackhawks inconsistency and goaltending, the Canucks depleted defense and more methodical approach), but it's something you can't avoid at this stage of the year.
Four wins away from a trip to the big dance. Wow.