2011 NHL Playoff Preview: Vancouver Canucks vs. Chicago Blackhawks
This time, the two Western Conference foes meet in the opening round. Vancouver, the Presidents' Trophy winner as the league's best regular season team, has home ice. It also has a score to settle with the Blackhawks.
In each of the last two postseasons, Chicago has ended the season for the Canucks. Vancouver is primed to make a run at the Stanley Cup this spring. To do that, it will have to advance against the defending champions.
The teams are 2-2 in their four meetings this season.
Will this first-round series be as even as the head-to-head record would indicate? Let's take a look at both teams.
How Vancouver Got Here
The Canucks ran away with the NHL's best regular season record. A 54-19-9 record earned them 117 points and the Presidents' Trophy.
They have played well in and away from Rogers Arena, having 27 wins both at home and on the road. They finished the regular season by winning seven of their last 10 games.
The lead the league in goals scored/game (3.15), fewest goals allowed/game (2.20) and power play percentage (24.3 percent). Their penalty kill (85.6 percent) was tied for second in the NHL this season.
How Chicago Got Here
The Blackhawks finished the regular season with a 44-29-9 mark, good for 97 points. They were 24-17 at the United Center and 20-12-9 on the road.
They were 6-4-1 to finish the year, playing in a series of must-win contests.
The 'Hawks power play (23.1 percent) is fourth in the league, although their penalty kill is among the league's worst (79.2 percent, good for 25th in the NHL). They were third in the conference behind the Canucks and Red Wings in goals scored per game (3.07).
The Canucks were led in scoring by Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who were first and fourth in the league in points, respectively. Ryan Kesler also turned in a big season with a career-high 41 goals to go with a plus-24 rating.
Shut down center Manny Malhotra will not be available for the playoffs, which lessens Vancouver's depth advantage at the center position. His absence will also be felt on faceoffs. Mason Raymond may fill in on the third line at center, or young Cody Hodgson may be the man with Raymond moving back to wing.
Mikael Samuelsson (50 points) and Alexandre Burrows (48), along with Raymond (39), provide scoring punch from the wings.
The Blackhawks need Dave Bolland in the lineup to help neutralize the Sedins, but the center is still not cleared for contact after suffering a concussion March 9th.
Michael Frolik has been minding the middle of the second line, but a healthy and effective Bolland would be a huge boost to Chicago.
Jonathan Toews is a tough two-way competitor who led the 'Hawks with 76 points this season. The captain paired with Patrick Kane (73 points) and Patrick Sharp (71 points) to form one of the league's hottest trios before Sharp went out with a knee injury.
The aforementioned three, plus Marian Hossa (57 points), have been the primary scoring threats lately for Chicago this season. Tomas Kopecky's 42 points were a career best. He and Bryan Bickell (37 points) will need to get to the net and provide muscle in the corners.
Troy Brouwer, who wound up fifth in the league in hits to go with 36 points, injured his shoulder late in the season and is questionable for the series. The loss of Brouwer's physical play will hurt. Rookie Ben Smith has played second-line minutes and may have a run like Bickell did in last year's playoffs.
Vancouver may not have the big names and big contracts Chicago does on the blue line, but it may have an advantage when it comes to depth.
The Canucks have been banged up in this area for parts of the season but seem to be getting everyone back into place at the right time. Alexander Edler and Dan Hamhuis have returned to action. Edler looks to pair up with Christian Ehrhoff, while Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa look to clamp down on the top Chicago scorers.
Albert Andrews may also be available, as a broken wrist has kept him out since February. Kevin Ballard and Sami Salo provide veteran depth on the third pairing.
Chicago's top pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook looks to be the best pair of defenders in this series on paper, but Keith has played at times like he is dragging his Norris Trophy around with him. Still, Keith and Seabrook will likely be on the ice for nearly half of the Blackhawks' defensive shifts.
Brian Campbell has been solid for the 'Hawks, posting lower offensive numbers than usual but leading the team in plus/minus (plus-28). Niklas Hjalmarsson has had trouble getting the puck out of his zone but if healthy has blocked 166 shots. Hjalmarsson, Seabrook (154) and Keith (149) are all among the top 30 skaters in blocks this season.
Chris Campoli came over from Ottawa at the trade deadline and is capable of skating big minutes for Chicago. Rookie Nick Leddy has had to learn on the job this season but has looked good at times this season.
Unless the series is going to be decided by fisticuffs, John Scott figures to watch this series as a healthy scratch.
Roberto Luongo has been frustrated by the Blackhawks in the past but shut out Chicago in December and has two straight wins against them.
Luongo led the league in wins (38), was second in goals allowed average (2.11) and was third in save percentage (.928). The 32-year-old netminder has enjoyed his finest season with Vancouver and has the desire to conquer his playoff demons of past battles with Chicago.
Cory Schneider has started 22 games for the Canucks and put up great numbers (2.23 GAA, .929 save percentage) as Luongo's backup.
Corey Crawford stepped into the starter's role midseason and was a big reason the Blackhawks were able to reach the postseason. He has started his team's last 27 games and proved he can handle the workload. However, this is his first playoff series.
Crawford won 33 games this season and had a 2.30 goals against average and a .917 save percentage.
Marty Turco, brought in as a free agent to be the starter, saw his GAA balloon to 3.02 and has spent this spring firmly glued to the bench.
Keys for Vancouver
Vancouver needs to take care of business at home in the first two games. It has the defending champions in its building with a chance to make the statement that the last two years are ancient history.
The Canucks have a huge advantage in the bottom two lines as well as the third defensive pairing. They should be able to wear Chicago down and win games in the third period, where the 'Hawks have been extremely shaky.
The Blackhawks are the perfect team for the Canucks to open with, as a victory against the team that has prevented them from advancing in the last two seasons could spur them on to a successful playoff run.
Keys for Chicago
The Blackhawks have to strike the first blow and hope the Canucks have flashbacks of the last two playoff series. Chicago needs to come up with an upset in Game 1 and erode the confidence of the Canucks.
The big if in this series is Bolland. If he's in the lineup and can be effective, he gives the Blackhawks a chance to get into the heads of Kesler and the Sedins. Without him, Toews will have to go it alone, which will be very difficult.
The Hawks have to stay out of the penalty box, especially early in games. If Chicago's top two lines can score big and a player like Bickell, Frolik or a returning Brouwer suddenly gets hot and chips in like Dustin Byfuglien did a year ago, they may be able to rattle Luongo.
Who Advances to the Conference Semis
This series has the potential to be an entertaining affair. There's a history of dislike between the two teams, and a hard-fought playoff series can fuel a feud.
If Bolland comes back and can get up to speed quickly, this becomes a very interesting matchup. If not, the Canucks may have too much firepower for Chicago to handle.
Last season, the Blackhawks were the team on a mission, and Vancouver was a steppingstone on the way to the Stanley Cup. This year, the roles seem to be reversed.
Vancouver advances in seven games.