2010 NHL Playoffs: Western Conference Finals Preview & Prediction
With the Chicago Blackhawks disposing of the Vancouver Canucks in six games, the Western Conference Finals are now set with the second-seeded Hawks set to square off against the top-seeded San Jose Sharks.
Chicago was in this position last season, taking out the Canucks in six games, and then facing the Detroit Red Wings. Unfortunately for Blackhawks fans, the Red Wings prevailed for the right to play for the Stanley Cup. This season, the club is hoping that it can take the next step and compete for Lord Stanley's mug.
Standing in Chicago's way: the San Jose Sharks. After years of disappointment, the Sharks finally have shaken their postseason reputation, especially after taking care of the veteran Red Wings in only five games.
The Sharks have consistently been one of the top teams in the Western Conference for the last five regular seasons, but every time the team looked like they would go all the way, it would end up choking in the first or second round of a playoff series. Not this season.
After struggling against Colorado early on in the first round, the Sharks put it all together in the latter stages of that series, and haven't looked back since.
Meanwhile, the Blackhawks also had a tougher than expected challenge from the Nashville Predators in the first round, but have also gotten their act together, and are ready to advance to the Finals.
This should make for a great series, so let's break down each position and see who should eventually win and move on.
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San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov has been an All-Star goaltender for several seasons, but has always come up short in the postseason.
Chicago's Antti Niemi was supposed to be the backup, but eventually wrestled the number one job away from Cristobal Huet.
So far in these playoffs, both goalies have put up nearly identical numbers. Nabby has a better GAA (2.43 to 2.57), but has also played in one less game than Niemi. The Finnish rookie has posted a better save percentage compared to the veteran Russian (.909 to .907) but barely. The only other difference is that Niemi has two shutouts, while Nabokov has one.
If we go by experience, the edge would surely go to Nabokov. Despite his postseason struggles, he has been in the league for a decade and has been a top 10 goaltender for the last four years.
In comparison, the 26-year-old Niemi is a rookie, but in half a season worth of starts, he has posted better numbers than Nabokov.
Both goalies have had their ups and downs in these playoffs, but have been solid for the most part, and are now the only goaltenders left standing in the West.
The San Jose Sharks have one of the best blueliners of the past 15 years on their back end in captain Rob Blake. The club also has Dan Boyle, the team's No. 1 D-man, and a former Cup winner with the Lightning.
Veteran Niclas Wallin was added at the trade deadline from Carolina, and plays the role of a shut-down specialist, while Douglas Murray adds grit to the group.
Youngsters Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jason Demers round out the top six. The main cog is Boyle, who logs the most ice time, plays in all key situations, and is a threat to do something offensively, every time he is on the ice.
As solid as this group is for the Sharks, it pales in comparison to what Chicago can throw out at you, and that starts with the dynamic duo of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. A Norris Trophy nominee, Keith has always been great in his own end, but this season he busted out offensively, finishing with a whopping 69 points, second to only Mike Green in defenseman scoring.
His blueline partner Seabrook is considered one of, if not the best shutdown guys in the league. Both log enormous amounts of ice time, and play in every key situation. Considering that Keith is only 26 and Seabrook just turned 25, it's scary to think that neither has hit his prime yet either.
With those two taking up the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, Brian Campbell makes a huge difference as a No. 3 blueliner. The smooth puck-mover would be the No. 1 guy on a number of teams in the league, as his skill set is similar to that of Boyle's, except he gets to showcase it on the second defensive pairing.
Niklas Hjalmarsson is a 22-year-old Swede that has been given more and more responsibility as the season has gone on. He rarely makes any bad plays, and usually does the simple things that are needed to win hockey games.
Brent Sopel and Jordan Hendry make up the third defensive pairing, and although neither could be considered a top four defenseman, both do their part to make simple plays as well (Sopel made a great save with his stick in Game Six against Vancouver, which prevented a surefire Canucks goal).
Veteran Kim Johnsson, who was acquired in a deal for Cam Barker, has not been able to play in the postseason due to injury. Otherwise, he would be a top four blueliner as well.
Oh, and don't forget, if needed, feisty Dustin Byfuglien can also play D.
The San Jose Sharks deploy the most dangerous line in hockey, with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley skating together to form the No. 1 line.
However in this postseason, the second line of Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi, and Ryan Clowe has really stepped up to cause matchup problems for the opposition. In fact, Pavelski has been the best Sharks player in these playoffs.
The players on the third and fourth line also provide solid depth in limited minutes as well. Manny Malhotra is great in the faceoff circle, while Scott Nichol gets under a lot of people's skin.
Rookie Logan Couture, Jamie McGinn, Torrey Mitchell, and Dwight Helminen round out the forward group.
While the Sharks pretty much put all their eggs in one basket with the Thornton line, the Blackhawks are probably the deepest team in the league, and mix up their lines really well.
Young studs Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are the offensive catalysts on the top line, while Byfuglien creates havoc in front of the net. The talented Marian Hossan lines up with the reliable Patrick Sharp on the second line, and both are joined by Troy Brouwer.
The third line could probably be considered one of the best in the NHL. David Bolland plays down the middle, with Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg flanking him on the wings.
A combination of Tomas Kopecky, John Madden, Adam Burish, and Ben Eager make up the fourth line.
The Blackhawk forwards can play any type of game that is required, whether it be a defensive battle, or an offensive run and gun style.
Overall, this should be a tremendous series to watch, as both teams boast a lot of firepower, and also possess a who's who of Olympians.
It will be a treat to watch Joel Quenneville and Todd McLellan out-coach each other, especially when it comes to matching up lines, and it is a guarantee that Seabrook and Keith will be all over the Thornton line. In the end, that should be the difference.
Prediction: Chicago in six games