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Storyline: Déjà vu all over again as the young stars of Chicago head into another titanic clash with the silently pesky Vancouver Canucks. Will it be an encore performance for the Blackhawks, or can the Canucks finally make a breakthrough?
Offense: No surprises out of the first round for the Blackhawks, who scored just about as consistently as they were expected to. Easily the most controversial figure in the lineup is Marian Hossa, who was the talk of the town after he controversially stayed in Game Six through a five-minute major penalty and into overtime to score the game-winning goal.
While most claimed that Hossa was having a miserable series, his seven points state otherwise. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, meanwhile, led the Hawks to an inevitable first round victory. Kane in particular was a massive success who performs better than anyone on the ice when the pressure is on.
For Chicago, scoring can come from any number of sources, leaving several players looking like powder kegs. Andrew Ladd, Troy Brouwer, and Kris Versteeg (a combined minus-9 in the first round), are just a few examples.
Vancouver’s offense was charged by one huge return from an otherwise second line player. Mikael Samuelsson played what is legitimately the best hockey of his career, jumping out to a quick 7 goals and eventual playing time with the Sedin twins.
As for Henrik and Daniel, the twins took a few games to get their heads into the game, but of course, once they did, both were exemplary. Other players made big impacts, such as Pavol Demitra and Steve Bernier, yet there were still some forwards who failed to stand out the way they had in the 82 games previous.
Alex Burrows found himself demoted after Samuelsson’s explosion, and with just one point in the first six games, you can see why. Kyle Wellwood experienced a similar decline, missing the net with the greatest of ease on more than one occasion. Both teams are strong scoring forces with threats from all around, it just depends which one chooses to show up first. Advantage: Chicago.
Defense: When put in perspective, Chicago’s defense may indeed be underrated. With Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith already experiencing career years, others have stepped up to fill in the gaps and make life miserable for the offense.
Niklas Hjalmarsson is the standout of the first round, desperately breaking away from the other blue liners on the team with a team-leading plus-6 rating and a knack for creating turnovers in the defensive end. Hjalmarsson’s emergence has warranted increased ice time and exposure, too, all of which date back to Chicago’s trade of Cam Barker for Kim Johnsson, and the subsequent disappearing act of the latter.
Brent Sopel has also been a bright spot of hope, and the return of Brian Campbell may not have elicited any points in the lineup, but he’s definitely a motivating factor behind Chicago’s first round win over Nashville.
Vancouver, meanwhile, found themselves under attack from a higher-powered offense than the Predators when the Los Angeles Kings rolled into town. The Canucks were an all-around heavier hitting defense, showing great tenacity from players like Shane O’Brien and Alexander Edler.
Edler in particular was the biggest source of big hits and friction throughout the first round, agitating nearly every King on the ice into playing “off” their respective games. Each of the Cancuks’ top four defenders racked up over 22 minutes of ice time, an arduous task that would keep most too tired to support their offense. These four are also a combined plus-18, best amongst the West. Advantage: Vancouver.
Goaltending: What is it about Antti Niemi that keeps fans coming back? Throughout the first six games of his playoff career, Niemi ran as hot and cold as any goalie could. After looking lost in game one, Niemi righted the ship with one of two shutouts against the Predators en route to a 2.15 goals against average and .921 save percentage.
Obviously, his two shutouts helped to keep those numbers down, and despite relinquishing more goals than the Hawks would have liked, he stood on his head during a major power play in overtime of game five, followed by an outstanding “shut-the-door” performance in the second and third periods of game six. Niemi has proved that when he’s sharp, he’s nearly unbeatable and can tame any offense. When he’s not, Chicago is in a 6-5 fight for a win.
While Niemi had his ups and downs, Roberto Luongo played with a little luck on his side and still has a lot of work to do. Luongo gave up more than Niemi and has looked very beatable more often than not. Sure, Luongo has the save of the playoffs working for him thus far, but he’s also one of the only tenders to see his backup get action when he falters.
Luongo has been here before, and in nearly the exact same situation. St. Louis provided little challenge for Roberto before the Hawks brought Vancouver’s Cup train to a screeching halt. If Niemi is coming into his own, Luongo will need to remember what it took to carry Team Canada to a Gold Medal. Advantage: Push.
Key Players: Four points in four games four Jonathan Toews in the regular season against Vancouver is enough to merit the nod as a key ingredient to success, not to mention he leads the Hawks with 8 points overall in the postseason. Vancouver’s kryptonite to Chicago? Would you believe it was the quiet Alex Burrows, with five points in four games.
History: This marks the fourth playoff series between the Hawks and Canucks and the second in as many years. Chicago has won two of three, and split the season series with Vancouver 2-2.
Outcome: This could easily be the best series of the second round, if not the ugliest. The Hawks have gotten themselves into the second round again after nearly letting a series slip away, while Vancouver was in the driver’s seat from game one on. Difference maker? It could be a deciding factor come game seven as I prepare for a barrage of hate mail. Canucks in seven.