Season Series: Blackhawks won, 4-0
In the MLB’s most recent season, we saw the two teams that are arguably two of the worst in the sport’s history, the Phillies and the Rays, find themselves in the playoffs. They eventually met in the World Series, with the Phillies, professional sports’ only 10,000+ loss team, taking the title.
The Blackhawks are, without question, the worst team in hockey’s history. Not only have they only won only three Stanley Cups despite being an Original Six team, but they haven’t even won one in the expansion era!
In fact, they’ve only made the conference finals once since 1961!
However, if the MLB’s most recent campaign is any indicator, every dog will have his day. The Blackhawks have come roaring out of the Western Conference cellar, posting their first 100 point season in 17 years, and are back in the playoffs for the first time in 11 years (this after making the playoffs for 28 straight years from 1969 to 1997).
They’re lead up front by young superstars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, as well as by winger Martin Havlat. On defense, the Blackhawks have a potential Norris Trophy candidate in Duncan Keith, in addition to another emerging blue-liner in Brent Seabrook and their big free-agent pickup Brian Campbell.
In goal, Nikolai Khabibulin has emerged as the top man after being put on waivers back in September, although he’s been in a time-share with free-agent pickup Cristobal Huet for most of the season.
The “Bulin Wall” is expected to be the starter in the playoffs, although it would hardly been surprising to see Huet in goal at some point, whether it be for the second of two back-to-back games or for good should Khabibulin struggle.
The Flames were at the top of the northwest division for much of the year, and seemed to have the division title in the bag but late-season struggles hit them hard.
Injuries and a seven-game road swing caused them to slip in the standings despite the addition of Jordan Leopold and Olli Jokinen at the trade deadline, and a strong finish by the Canucks led to them finishing second in the division and fifth in the conference.
So the Flames have had their struggles in the latter part of the season, but that hardly means they’ll be easy to beat in the playoffs. The team has a lot of playoff experience, as this will be their fourth straight trip to the second season.
They haven’t gotten out of the first round since their trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004, but that’s partly because they’ve faced very powerful teams in each of their last three quarterfinal series.
Miikka Kiprusoff and Jarome Iginla have already proven that they can lead a team deep into the playoffs, and the addition of forwards Mike Cammallieri and Olli Jokinen this season has made the Flames stronger up front than they have been in previous years.
On the blue line, Dion Phaneuf has had a disappointing season, and there really isn’t another guy who has stepped up to make up for his struggles.
Teams that are in free-fall often seem to struggle come playoff time, but the Flames certainly have a leg up on the Blackhawks when it comes to one key area- experience. The Blackhawks are loaded with young players, many who have been with the organization for the entirety of their careers.
They aren’t used to the pressure that usually accompanies the playoffs, and facing a team as experienced as the Flames could very well be a problem for them.
It’s going to be up to Brian Campbell on the blue line, and Nikolai Khabibulin (or Cristobal Huet) in the net to exude a calming effect in order to keep the team level-headed against the flames.
All things considered, it looks like the Flames might have a leg up on the Blackhawks here. The Blackhawks may have swept the teams’ regular season series, but the playoffs are a whole other creature. After the comparison I drew earlier between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Blackhawks, you might think I’m crazy to say that.
However, the Rays were only able to win in baseball’s playoffs because they faced a significantly weaker team in the White Sox, and later a team they were very familiar with (and in turn already comfortable with) in the Red Sox. Once they met a team with both skill and playoff experience in the Phillies, they were quickly subdued.
Even if you don’t like drawing comparisons between different sports, you can’t argue with the notion that a skilled, experienced team has a leg up on an inexperienced, slightly better team.
Teams who need to take their game to a level they aren’t accustomed to often struggle early in playoff series.
We saw it last year when the Capitals fell behind in their series against the Flyers 3-1 before roaring back and nearly winning in seven, and also when the Penguins got blown out in the first two games of the Cup Finals before they got comfortable and gave the Red Wings a run for their money in the four games that followed.
The Blackhawks will drop one or both of their games at home as they struggle to get their feet wet, and that will be problematic given the sort of place the Pengrowth Saddledome turns into come playoff time. The Blackhawks will get valuable postseason experience that they will almost certainly make good use of in the years to come, but that’s about all the Stanley Cup Playoffs should have in store for them this year.
Flames in Six
Check back soon on Bleacher Report for more NHL Playoff Previews from Ben Livingston.