Written By Nick Lush and Hunter McDowell
The first round action has come to its conclusion and, as expected, the Western Conference’s top three seeds all made it through without having to take a seventh-game.
The only upset in the four playoff series really wasn't much of an upset at all, as the streaking Detroit Red Wings managed to defeat this season’s feel-good story, the Phoenix Coyotes, in seven games.
So with all top three seeds moving on and the perennial playoff-contending Red Wings in the mix, what can we expect from the second round?
Can the Sharks continue to shake off memories of yesteryear in the face of what looks to be an unfavorable match up? Can the Canucks shake off the league-wide conspiracy to keep them out of the finals, even if that conspiracy goes straight to the top?
Let’s take a look at what could and should happen in the next round.
(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings
This is the match up that no sane Sharks fan wanted in the second round. The Red Wings bear many resemblances to last year’s Anaheim Ducks—a veteran line-up full of players who have been here before.
They know what it takes to get to the finals, having played in the last two Stanley Cup Finals with largely the same roster. The biggest x-factor for the Red Wings going forward will likely be the play of rookie goaltender Jimmy Howard.
Howard has performed at about the same level he did during the regular season which, while not great for playoff goaltending, at least provides some stability to the back of Detroit’s defense.
In the regular season Howard played his way to 37 wins on a 2.26 GAA and a .924 save percentage. Both of those have taken a slight dip in the postseason, dropping down to 2.59 GAA and .919 save percentage.
Not great, but he hasn’t been pull-ably bad either.
Evgeni Nabokov of San Jose, by contrast, has stepped his game up in the playoffs, boosting his regular season 2.43 GAA and .922 save percentage to a strong 1.76 GAA and .926 save percentage.
The trouble with Nabokov, as ever, is that he seems to loose focus at points in various games and sometimes will stray too far from his post or let in a goal that has no business going in the net.
Danny Boyle’s overtime goal on his own team is an example of that; sure it was a fluke goal, but there’s no reason he should even be able to get a puck past his own net-minder to the near post. Those sorts of things simply cannot happen against a team like Detroit if the Sharks want to advance. The Red Wings are too strong on the fore check for a goaltender to be able to get bored.
If the Sharks are going to be able to advance past this series they are going to need to be responsible and efficient in their own zone. They certainly have the manpower to do that with big bodies like Rob Blake and Douglas Murray patrolling the blue-line, and they have the skill to skate the puck out of their zone with Marc-Edouard (“Pickles”) Vlasic and Boyle.
Boyle has also been a strong contributor to the San Jose attack whether during five-on-five play or on the power play. Of the four Sharks defensemen that have skated 20 plus minutes in the first round (Blake, Murray, Boyle, and Vlasic), all have positive +/- ratings heading in to the second round, and are a collective +11.
The concern for the Sharks will be in how young Jason Demers responds to Detroit’s physical and intelligent forwards and whether Kent Huskins (0 P, -1) can elevate his play in the second round.
Detroit has at least an equally-skilled blue line as San Jose, if not better.
Nicklas Lidstrom is no doubt familiar to almost any hockey fan, and the team captain has been a reliable and steady force, yet again, as the Red Wings navigate the 2010 playoffs. He has chipped in 6 points and skated to a +1 over a team leading 25:32 TOI during the seven-game series with Phoenix.
His partner, Brian Rafalski, should be familiar to fans who tuned in during the Olympics and if you did you already know how good Rafalski can be offensively, if he gets some space.
However, the play of guys like Brad Stuart, Niklas Kronwall, and even Jonathan Ericsson has been strong as well. Kronwall is a dominating physical force and Stuart is a capable two-way defensemen. Figuring out how to get around these guys on the blue line and how to take the out of the offense will be crucial to San Jose’s hopes to move on.
Detroit’s usual cast of characters has contributed in their usual ways, with the talented Pavel Datsyuk once again leading the charge alongside Hank Zetterberg. The other regulars, Valtteri Filppula, Johan (“The Mule”) Franzen, and Tomas Holmstrom have all made their presences felt in the first round and will continue to do so going forward.
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has done an excellent job keeping shifts short and spreading the ice time around so far, and the forwards have responded, with six different players chipping in multi-point performances thus far and nine forwards have at least one goal. If Detroit can continue to get good minutes out of guys like Justin Abdelkader and Drew Miller, they’ll be hard for anyone to knock out.
Ultimately, this series will be as competitive as the Sharks’ top line is willing to make it.
Unfortunately, if there are three things you can rely on this world, they’re death, taxes, and the Sharks’ top unit under-performing in the playoffs.
If you took a look at the Sharks’ stat sheet thus far in the playoffs, any logical person would conclude that it’s Joe Pavelski, Ryan Clowe, and Devin Setoguchi who are making upwards of $6 million a season rather than the actual top line of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, and Dany Heatley.
The Clowe-Pavelski-Setoguchi line has potted nine goals and 22 points between them in six games while skating to a +16 rating, whereas the Heatley-Thornton-Marleau line has potted one goal and 10 points with a -7 rating in that same span.
The Sharks have gotten strong contributions from others in the line-up, like Logan Couture, Manny Malhotra, and Scott Nichol, but if they are to have any hope of advancing Marleau, Thornton, and Heatley need to be the Sharks top three forwards, not just in the top six.
Prediction: Despite the Sharks being my hometown team, nothing about their first round series convinces me that they are ready for Detroit: Red Wings win 4-2.
(2) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (3) Vancouver Canucks
The Blackhawks came alive towards the end of their series against the Nashville Predators, winning the final three games of the series by a combined score of 13-7.
However, along the way to their second round date (and rematch!) with the Vancouver Canucks they have managed to flaunt virtually all of the various deeply-ingrained hockey superstitions regarding Lord Stanley’s Cup.
They painted a mural featuring team captain Jonathan Toews and the Cup right there, side by side. Players of NHL 2010 will be familiar with the end shot in the opening series of Cup winners featured holding it aloft, which depicts young winger Patrick Kane holding the Cup over his head right before, presumably, thrusting it into the back of the head of a cab driver who failed to give him proper change.
Hell, they signed Marian Hossa to a multi-year deal in the offseason.
So will the Blackhawks succumb to their own hubris? Or will the league-wide conspiracy* against the Vancouver Canucks continue, unabated and un-discussed, leaving them to hold their heads in shame while the Blackhawks once again skate victorious around the rink?
*There is no league-wide conspiracy against the Canucks.
One thing is for sure: this series will be entertaining on many levels, not least of which being the mutual hate developed between these two rosters and fan bases during last season’s playoffs that remain largely intact coming into this season.
Big questions lie between the pipes for both teams.
Canucks netminder Roberto Luongo has played fairly poorly thus far in the playoffs (apparently he used up his playoff goaltending in the Olympics) and he has posted a shoddy 2.92 GAA and .893 save percentage through the seven games in the first round.
That alone could spell doom against an offense as high-powered and relentless as the Blackhawks’ attack.
“Luuuuuuuuuuu” had moments of brilliance against the Kings, like his spinning glove save while lying on his back in the crease in game six, but he had just as many moments of weakness, allowing poor goals in and failing to see shots from the point. He has to get better if he’s going to give the Sedin line (don’t worry Canuck fans, I won’t get your ire up by daring refer to them as “Twinkies”) a chance to do their thing.
Likewise, in the Chicago net Antti Niemi has been alternately brilliant and bad (most obviously in game six in Nashville). Niemi has been great in net for the Blackhawks most of the time, especially for a rookie, and has posted a very respectable 2.15 GAA and .921 save percentage through the first round.
It should be noted that Niemi was also playing against the Predators who, not the highest scoring team ever during the regular season, were also without their best offensive threat for pretty much the entire series.
Niemi will need to continue to up his game to allow Chicago to succeed, and it will be essential for Chicago’s blue liners and centermen to keep his sight lines clear to avoid making his job any harder as things heat up in the playoffs.
Vancouver has a decent corps of defensemen but not one, in my view, that is going to strike fear into the hearts of their opponents.
All four of the top men in minutes (Kevin Bieksa, Alexander Elder, Christian Ehrhoff, and Sami Salo) have been capable contributors to the Vancouver offense and not one Canuck defenseman who played in the first round posted a negative +/- in the series.
Ehrhoff, in particular, is a capable offensive contributor and one who you can trust to skate the puck out of the zone. What the Canucks lack on the blue line is the presence of a true shut down defender who is going to make forwards think twice about skating along the blue line or putting their head down while they charge into the zone.
The Blackhawks love to play a vertical and aggressive style of hockey, and the absence of that big bruising defenseman could haunt the Canucks at the end of this series.
On the other end of the ice, the Blackhawks defensive corps is lead by Norris trophy-candidate Duncan Keith, who, while skating to a surprising -4 in the first round, also led the group with almost 28 minutes of ice time and 13 shots.
Keith is a responsible defenseman in his own zone, as is partner Brent Seabrook who comes into the second round with a unit-leading 4 points. The Chicago defensive corps is also bolstered by the return of Brian Campbell who is an excellent puck-mover and one who is reliable bringing the puck out of the zone on his own. Partner Niklas Hjalmarsson is the unit-leader in +/- at a +6 going into the second round and has stepped up big, once again, in the playoffs.
The biggest question on Chicago’s blue line will be whether or not utility forward Dustin Byfuglien stays there, as he was asked to for most of the first round. He wasn’t particularly bad, but it’s clearly not his natural position and the Blackhawks would prefer to have him up front parking his big body squarely in front of Luongo.
Up front, Vancouver relies heavily on production from the Wonder Twins, Henrik and Daniel Sedin, who thus far have scored 18 points between them and a collective +13.
Line-mate Alex Burrows' contributions have been somewhat muted in the playoffs, and the Canucks would likely prefer to see him start contributing on offense a bit more, or, at least get under the skin of opposing forward.
Mikael Samuelsson has, predictably, been great in the playoffs, leading the team with 11 points and seven goals and all together 10 Vancouver forwards have chipped in at least one point.
Vancouver’s success in this series, though, will undoubtedly be determined by the play of the Sedin line and Chicago can get them out of their comfort zone, even a little bit, it could spell big trouble for the Canucks.
Similarly, Chicago has gotten some production from up and down the roster as well, with 10 forwards chipping in at least a point, and with some pretty balanced scoring from their top six forwards. Captain Serious (Toews) leads the forwards with eight points heading into the second round but eight different forwards have scored at least one goal (even if Nashville fans will kick and scream and yell about Hossa’s one goal from now until time eternal) and four different forwards netted a game winner in the last series.
The Blackhawks’ grinders are not afraid to bang and if things get testy, look for Coach Joel Quenneville to throw Ben Eager, Troy Brouwer, or Adam Burish over the boards to get things “sorted out”.
If Chicago can pounce on Luongo early and get Kane, Toews, and Patrick Sharp heated up quickly in the series, the Blackhawks will have an excellent chance of advancing. Quenneville will need to keep his stars out of harm’s way, though, because this one’s going to get testy.
Chicago has a strong power play and Vancouver did not look good corralling LA’s power play in the first round, and that trend will have to change for this series to go the distance.
If Vancouver can at least stay within one or two against Chicago on special teams, I would expect this to go seven.
Prediction: I fully expect this series to go the distance, but I also expect the more talented roster to ultimately win out—Blackhawks win 4-3.