San Jose Sharks vs. Chicago Blackhawks: NHL Western Conference Final Preview

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San Jose Sharks vs. Chicago Blackhawks: NHL Western Conference Final Preview
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

The wacky Western Conference was statistically superior to the East all season long. Several teams finished with surprising playoff berths while several others lost their identities. But in the end, the top two dogs all year emerged for one final showdown for West supremacy.

No. 1 San Jose Sharks vs. No. 2 Chicago Blackhawks

Storyline:
San Jose struck through the Red Wings and appear to have finally shaken off the playoff woes, but if any team knows about Cup demons, it is their Western Conference Finals opponents, the Chicago Blackhawks.

Offense: For over a decade, fans of Joe Thornton have waited patiently for him to show the brilliance of the regular season during the playoffs. And to this year, he had always let them down. Thornton’s eight points in five games against the Red Wings were a deciding factor in San Jose’s newfound confidence. Thornton’s offense is opening up at just the right down, and what’s more, he’s shooting the puck with less restraint than ever.

Both Dany Heatley and potential-UFA Patrick Marleau finally awoke from their slumber against the Red Wings, combining for 11 points. Heatley alone had five of his seven points on the power play, a keeper stat for a player who can generally jam home the rebound and keep a team afloat.

Despite the potential that follows these big three, it has been the Joe Pavelski show in HP Pavilion. Pavelski scored four goals in the second round to add to his team leading total of nine. His five power play goals were motivation enough to push the team over the hump. And for San Jose, the power play is key and must prevail over Chicago’s threatening penalty kill.

In the Windy City, it comes as no surprise that Jonathan Toews is playing like a true captain. It feels as if every play, every goal Toews is involved in somehow. In fact, Toews has points on 20 of Chicago’s 38 goals in the postseason, or more than half of them.

His teammate Patrick Kane isn’t slacking either. Kane finds ways to get at least a point a game and more often than not is responsible for the game-changing goal. He’s a legit sparkplug in a lineup that every once in a while falls asleep. And while Marian Hossa hasn’t been exemplary in his postseason career, he’s looking more menacing and more threatening as the days go by.

Chicago’s depth as compared to San Jose’s makes for an interesting set of match-ups down the pipe. Can Dustin Byfuglien keep earning his minutes and play his physical style against the speedy Devin Setoguchi? Will unsung heroes like Dave Bolland and Manny Malhotra keep themselves from drowning in a sea of talent? Will Andrew Ladd and Scott Nichol continue to punish forwards and goalies? Advantage: Push.

Defense: Fans waited patiently to see if Dan Boyle could shake off his catastrophic own-goal against Colorado in the opening round. When he did, they rejoiced. Now, Boyle has to shake off an iffy second round performance that saw him go minus-4 against Detroit’s best.

Enter Rob Blake. Blake quietly racked up ice time and hasn’t scored much this postseason, but he’s always proven to be a key acquisition for the Sharks and one of his previous tenants, the Colorado Avalanche. Blake’s style is more reserved than bruising, a sign that age is playing a part in his abilities, yet he’s not taking near the amount of penalties we’re used to seeing while clearing the front of the net.

Meanwhile, defensemen like Jason Demers and Douglas Murray are going to have plenty of opportunities to prove that they truly belong when they’re matched up against some of the fastest and best shooters the league has assembled on one team.

The Blackhawks defense has received high marks through two rounds, mostly for their well-earned performances despite some questionable experience. Defenders like Brian Campbell have a penchant for disappearing in the latter stages of the season (ask Sharks fans), yet Campbell’s played more mistake-free hockey this playoffs than ever before.

It would appear that his recovery from injury may have knocked the sense back into him after playing “dispy-doodle” for one too many seasons.

Another strong round for Niklas Hjalmarsson deserves mention, as does the exhaustive pace Duncan Keith is running around the competition. Keith is playing nearly five minutes more than any other player on the team per game this postseason, a stat that is contested by only Dan Boyle of San Jose. Keith, along with Brent Seabrook, are poised to be a one-two punch for years in Chicago.

The Hawks defense has more offensive punch, but the Sharks manage to pinch in tighter when they have to. It is almost as even a contest as the offensive roster. Advantage: Push.

Goaltending: At the beginning of the playoffs, both starting goalies in this series were questionable at best. Evgeni Nabokov hadn’t played his best hockey after a rough Olympic preliminary, and his playoff record was starting to become a cause for alarm. Antti Niemi, meanwhile, had never been tested in that environment and was as green as grass in regards to do-or-die experience. Both, however, have responded tenfold.

Nabokov saw a lot more action from the Detroit Red Wings than the Colorado Avalanche in the semifinals. His shot intake skyrocketed and his goals against took a hit, but Nabokov was a rock considering the talent he had to face up with. Overall, Nabokov is looking like the goalie he was when the Sharks made their only other appearance in the Western Conference Finals.

Niemi, meanwhile, has taken the criticism in stride and is the bounce back goalie of the playoffs. Though neither goalie has lost two in a row this year, Niemi has done it in style by recording shutouts following losses and generally keeping the team at even par for the course. Niemi managed to win a duel with Roberto Luongo not once, but three times on his home ice.

Despite their strong play, both still have a little more to prove if they want to be consider legitimate contenders, but don’t all goalies remaining in this year’s playoffs? Nabokov’s experience, trials, and tribulations may well be the tipping point. Advantage: San Jose

Outcome:
Do we expect to see as many blowout games in this series as we have all playoffs? No, if for no other reason than these are the two best teams in the league competing in the biggest series of the year…so far. One team is going to put itself closer to exterminating the ghosts, the other is back to square one. M

aybe the hockey gods have finally let up on the rabid fan base in Chicago, or maybe it’s the one in Northern California. Sharks in seven.

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