West finals preview: Sharks-Hawks
If you're a hockey fan, and have no rooting interest in Chicago or San Jose, plop yourself in front of your TV over the next two weeks and enjoy what might be as entertaining a playoff series as you've seen in quite some time.
In the second round, the Canucks couldn't keep up the pace with the Blackhawks. This time around, the Sharks have the horses to match up. Both teams can score at will, and yet both are adept at limiting shots on goal against their goalies.
San Jose and Chicago, the top two seeds in the West, have never met before in the NHL playoffs, and both took different paths to arrive at this juncture. The Hawks are an emerging powerhouse whose destiny for glory was easily predictable thanks to a deep stable of young stars led by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane; the Sharks, a perennial contender for several seasons, finally return to the conference finals after a frustrating six-year gap, thanks to a well-built roster featuring a mixture of veteran and young talent, led by the likes of Dan Boyle and Joe Pavelski.
1. Puck possession: These two teams have modeled their game plan after the great Red Wings teams of the past decade -- if you have the puck, the other team doesn't. Sounds so simple, and yet few teams can pull it off. What happens when you're a great puck-possession team? The other team is limited in shots and scoring chances. The Hawks and Sharks have averaged 28.1 shots against per game in these playoffs, not surprisingly tied for tops in the West. There's only one puck, though, and now these two hoarding teams will be battling for it.
2. Hawks' offensive depth: The Sharks have a top-six forward group that rivals any in the NHL, but no team can match Chicago's top-nine collection. The Hawks won't have this kind of depth next season, when the salary cap and new contract extensions will force them to dump a few bodies; but, right now, Chicago's offensive depth is ridiculous.
The Game 6-clinching win in Vancouver on Tuesday night was a perfect example of that. "Look at our goal scorers [Tuesday night], the first three," said Kane. "[Troy] Brouwer comes in, hasn't played in a while, and gives us a [1-0] lead. [Kris] Versteeg is in a checking role, but makes it 2-0. [Dave] Bolland was the same thing, a short-handed breakaway."
San Jose's challenge (one Vancouver couldn't figure out) is to have an answer from its third line, led by the impressive youngster Logan Couture. If San Jose's third line can hold its own against any of Chicago's top three lines, the Sharks will be in good shape.
3. The Brian Campbell/Dan Boyle history: What could have been, right? The Sharks acquired pending unrestricted free agent Campbell in late February 2008 with the hope he'd be more than a rental and would be willing to stick around. Somehow, despite repeated efforts by Sharks GM Doug Wilson in June 2008, Campbell went to free agency on July 1, 2008, and signed a mammoth, eight-year deal paying him $7.14 million a season. The Sharks quickly recovered three days later, acquiring Boyle from Tampa Bay in a blockbuster that filled Campbell's void as the star puck-rushing blueliner. Now the two players face each other with a Stanley Cup finals berth on the line.
4. Jumbo Joe: Few players have taken more abuse from media and fans alike over the past few seasons than Joe Thornton, who has become the poster boy for San Jose's playoff failures. Even in a first-round win over Colorado, Thornton was a target after being limited to three points in six games. Well, Thornton shut a lot of people up in the second round with a masterful series against the mighty Detroit Red Wings, putting up eight points (3-5) in five games and playing a physical, two-way game that was a major contributor to the series win. If he continues that kind of play in the conference finals, along with Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley, the Sharks are a dangerous team with a two-line attack that has had huge contributions from Pavelski's line.
5. Jonathan Toews: As much as the Blackhawks' success has been due to tremendous depth and balance throughout the lineup, the fact of the matter is, if the Conn Smythe Trophy were awarded before the conference finals, Toews would be the slam-dunk nominee from Chicago. Toews leads all Hawks scorers with a whopping 20 points (6-14) in 12 playoff games, elevating his play in the postseason like the great ones do (think Joe Sakic or Steve Yzerman). Just like he did in the Olympics for Team Canada, Toews is proving once again, the bigger the game, the more he's willing to step it up. There's no reason to think he'll slow down now.
• Duncan Keith/Brent Seabrook versus Sharks: The Blackhawks' top defensive pairing did a masterful job shutting down the Sedin twins in the second round. In Game 6, Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault tried everything in his power with the last line change to try to get his Swedish stars away from Keith and Seabrook. The Hawks' pair is that good. The question is, will Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville deploy this duo mostly against the traditional top line centered by Thornton, or will he want it on the red-hot playoff line centered by Pavelski? Tough call, but one that will be worth monitoring throughout the series.
• Blackhawks: After going pointless in the opening round, Dustin Byfuglien exploded for six points (4-2) in the final four games of the Canucks series, including a hat trick in Game 3. Andrew Ladd is a gritty, two-way contributor, but he's put up only two points in 12 playoffs games, including just one assist in six second-round games.
• Sharks: Thornton stepped up his game in the second round, putting up eight points (3-5) in five games against the Red Wings. Torrey Mitchell has been an effective checker in these playoffs, but the speedster is still looking for his first postseason goal this spring.
• Honestly, flip a coin. These are two powerhouses firing on all cylinders right now. We could easily make the argument for either team winning. But since we're being forced to declare a winner: Toews scores in quadruple overtime at HP Pavilion in Game 7. Hawks in seven.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
2010 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
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