Second-round preview: Canucks-Hawks
Until a late-season collapse by Calgary, this series looked destined to be a first-round matchup. But the Flames slipped from the Northwest Division crown to the fifth seed and drew Chicago in the first round, while the Canucks won the division and took on St. Louis.
Against an injury-riddled Calgary team, the youthful, inexperienced Blackhawks proved they aren't intimidated by physical play, or the playoffs as a whole. The Canucks, used to playoff disappointments, proved against a good St. Louis team they can play it close and tight and never get rattled (Vancouver won four straight against the Blues in a series closer than the final result would suggest).
The Canucks will hit this series as overwhelming favorites due in large part to the fact Roberto Luongo is playing like a man possessed (1.15 GAA and .962 save percentage). The Canucks will also be healthy with Willie Mitchell and Sami Salo both taking advantage of Vancouver's week-and-a-half break to get back to playing form.
It's still unknown whether Mats Sundin will play in Game 1 after he sat out the last two games of the St. Louis series with a lower-body injury believed to be hip-related. Coach Alain Vigneault told reporters in Vancouver he thought Sundin would play, although Sundin has been largely ineffective with just one goal in the two games he played.
The Blackhawks, meanwhile, will try to keep their magical season going after they won a playoff round for the first time since 1996. A lot of that will have to do with the continued strong play of Nikolai Khabibulin, who was terrific, especially in the last two games of the series, stopping 62 of 64 shots.
1. Are your teams special? The Vancouver Canucks limited St. Louis to one measly power-play goal in four games; in many respects, that was the difference in a closely fought series. The Blackhawks showed they've got something "special" in their special teams, ringing up seven power-play goals in six first-round games, and that was a major factor in their series victory. Those power-play goals were provided by seven different scorers, which is a nice bonus for the Hawks, whose offensive depth may be the one area in which they hold a distinct advantage over Vancouver. Chicago also limited the Flames to two power-play goals, while the Canucks had four power-play goals in 18 chances. If Chicago can win the special-teams battle, it will go a long way in keeping the magic alive for the Blackhawks.
2. Pressure, what pressure? Neither of these teams has had much in the way of playoff success in recent years. The Canucks have not advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs since their famous assault on the Stanley Cup in 1994, when they were defeated in seven games in the Stanley Cup finals by Mark Messier and the New York Rangers. The Blackhawks, of course, haven't won a Cup since 1962, the longest drought in the NHL, and haven't been in a conference final since 1995. So, does that mean there's no pressure on either team, or a lot on both? The Canucks will certainly have the pressure of being the favorite and opening at home. The Blackhawks will have to overcome the tendency to be satisfied with having achieved some success without having the benefit of much experience. They'll also have the benefit of playing at United Center, once again one of the toughest buildings in the NHL.
3. The goaltenders. Both Luongo and Khabibulin have much to prove in this series. Luongo has won just two playoff rounds in his career and one of them was last week. He has never advanced beyond the second round. He was the catalyst to a dramatic second-half turnaround that saw the Canucks erase a huge Calgary lead to take the Northwest Division crown. It's not an overstatement to suggest that, as Luongo goes, so go the Canucks. As for Khabibulin, the win over the Flames marked his first playoff series victory since he led Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup in 2004. He is going to be an unrestricted free agent in July, and with every postseason victory, his market value rises sharply. If he can help Chicago upset the Canucks, he will be back where he was after the Bolts won the Cup, at the top of the marketplace for free-agent netminders.
4. The helpers. The Canucks rely heavily on their top unit of Alexandre Burrows and the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik. The Blackhawks have an edge in offensive depth given the top six forwards coach Joel Quenneville will roll out -- Martin Havlat, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, rookie of the year candidate Kris Versteeg, Dave Bolland and Patrick Sharp. The Blackhawks received goals from 12 different skaters in the opening round, which is a good thing if you're Chicago. Havlat was especially impressive, following up on a strong second half with three goals and three assists against Calgary. He also added an overtime game winner for the Hawks.
That puts additional pressure on Pavol Demitra, who did not score in the opening series; gifted center Kyle Wellwood, who had a goal and an assist but has been all over the map this season; and one-time San Jose prospect Steve Bernier, who had one goal in the opening round.
5. The shut-down guys. Along with Luongo, one of the key factors in Vancouver's favor -- at least on paper -- is its grit and ability to shut down the opposing team. Forward Ryan Kesler, who was named a Selke Trophy finalist this week, will be asked to try to keep a lid on an explosive Chicago offense that finished tied for fourth during the regular season in goals per game. Kesler can also bring the offense; he had 26 goals during the regular season.
His counterpart in Chicago is former Anaheim Ducks shut-down specialist Samuel Pahlsson, acquired by the Blackhawks at the March 4 trade deadline. Pahlsson, along with Travis Moen and Rob Niedermayer, was one of the catalysts to the Ducks' run to the Cup in 2007 and brings invaluable experience to a dressing room that was basically void of playoff experience before the tournament began two weeks ago. Pahlsson, the runner-up to Carolina's Rod Brind'Amour for the 2007 Selke, picked up points in two of the last three games during the first round.
• Chicago: Defenseman Cam Barker had three goals in the first round in his first playoff series. Brian Campbell's deflection goal in Game 6 was his first in 51 games.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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