Season Series: Tied 2-2
* As Series End, All 2nd Round Match-ups Will Be Posted By Clicking Below *
The Chicago Blackhawks are in a sense lucky to be in the semi-finals against Vancouver and the only reason I say that, is because of Nashville's HORRIBLE powerplay (the Predators had a 3.7% efficiency rate on the PP). If Nashville had of had a powerplay like the Vancouver Canucks do, the series would not have gone in Chicago's favour.
With that being said, no, I am not writing off the Blackhawks in this series. They (by record) are the better team, and are a young, talented fast-paced squad who can score in bunches. At the same time, so is Vancouver and while they are not as young, they have proven they can fill the stat sheet given their 7-2 victory over the Kings in the previous round and also, the fact Henrik Sedin lead the league in points this year.
But don't tell the Blackhawks this, because they won't have any of it. Yeah, in their losses against the Preds, they lost both games 4-1, but in games two and four, goalie Antti Niemi posted shut-outs in both victories showing Chicago he can get it done in the playoffs. Can he consistently though is the question. Game five, if you didn't see it was one hell of a game as Chicago took at 3-1 lead before Nashville stormed back to take the 4-3 advantage.
With under a minute to play and short-handed due to Marian Hossa's five-minute major for boarding, Patrick Kane tied it up with 13 seconds remaining and as Hossa's penalty expired in overtime, he jumped out of the box, found the puck and put it into the net sending United Centre into Pandemonium.
In game six, they took advantage of the Predators horrific power play yet again (they finally scored though going one of five) and took the game with a final score of 5-3 setting up the match-up with the Canucks.
While I've been a little hard on the Blackhawks for how they've played, they did win the games that mattered and moved onto the Western Conference semi-finals. Many people were putting question marks all around Antti Niemi name but so far through-out the playoffs, he has had a better save percentage, as well as goals against average than Roberto Luongo.
What should also be noted, is that each teams opponent in round one were completely different and the Kings during the regular season not only scored more goals than Nashville but had less scored against them. The reason I bring this up is because the Predators are not in the same league offensively as Vancouver and Los Angeles and if Chicago doesn't step up their game offensively, way to much weight is going to be put on the inexperienced Niemi shoulders and ultimately, he will crumble.
It can all be avoided if players such as Kane, Toews, Hossa and Sharp continue their offensive dominance and the Blackhawks defence plays solid in front of Niemi to build his confidence. With the six defensemen of Keith, Seabrook, Campbell, Hjalmarsson, Byfuglien and Sopel, building up the confidence of Niemi should be easy but when you look across from you and the most hockey-compatible brothers in the history of the game racking up points with their fellow teammates, it's going to take more than just solid defence.
Youngers Toews and Kane, veterans Hossa and Sharp, and the entire third and fourth lines need to step it up a notch... only because it's a lot more intimidating facing Luongo, than it is Pekka Rinne (Predators goalie for those who don't know who he is).
The Vancouver Canucks played solid hockey all season long and for the first four games of the round one series against the Los Angeles Kings, the Canucks were looking as if an early exit from the playoffs was possible, leaving Canada's best hope to bring home Lord Stanley gone for yet again another year. Than game five came along and the Canucks looked like the team that all of British Columbia and Western Canada has grown to love with a 7-2 thrashing of what is a very young and talented Kings squad.
After game one was taken by the Canucks in overtime, game two was taken with the exact same score (3-2) in overtime as well but this time by the Kings. Just as it was looking like it could be a long drawn out series, the Kings looked confident taking game three at home and made Vancouver realize that Los Angeles are for real, and if the Canucks want to move past them, they are going to have to play extremely good hockey.
Well, Vancouver responded how any good team responds to adversity with three straight wins, first a 6-4 win on the road, followed by the 7-2 thrashing back in Vancouver and rode the momentum and won 4-2 in a comeback victory in game six (it was Vancouver's 13th third period comeback of the season).
Roberto Luongo hadn't exactly been himself at the end of the regular season and it carried into the early part of round one but he improved, so watch out because the Vancouver Canucks are clicking on all other cylinders. With Luongo playing well, they may just win the Stanley Cup. It is personally no concern to me that Niemi has had better stats than Luongo thus far and if you don't know the reason.... shame on you... But i'll put it bluntly.
Niemi prior to the playoffs had played 42 career NHL games. Luongo has 612 regular season games and 22 playoff games. Roberto Luongo not only has played 1/2 as many playoff games as Niemi has regular season NHL games but he also did something Niemi has never done, which is carry a team to a championship. This past February, Luongo (with the help of Sidney Crosby to say the least), helped Team Canada win the Olympics on home soil.
The experience that Luongo gained from that encounter can never, ever be replicated... it was one game, do or die and it went into overtime. Niemi has never, and may never in his career face something that daunting and to be quite frank, what he is about to face in this Vancouver Canucks squad, will be the biggest step in his NHL career. If Niemi is slightly off his game, Vancouver has a huge chance of moving onto the Western Conference Finals against either whoever wins the other series.
If the Canucks can continue to get production offensively out of the Sedin's (count on it), Samuelsson, Kesler and players like Burrows and Wellwood can step it up a bit, then add in solid defensive play from Salo, O'Brien, Ernhoff and others, with Luongo in net... and you've got a recipe that will knock everyone in the windy-city on their asses.
TheCoach's Pick: CANUCKS in SEVEN