The battle for the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl is set as the top two seeds survived and the San Jose Sharks will face the Chicago Blackhawks. The usually disappointing Sharks have made their franchise second Conference Finals and first since 2003-04. While, the Blackhawks on the other hand, have now made back-to-back Conference Finals and their third since the NHL went to its current playoff format. So let’s break this series down.
#1 San Jose Sharks vs #2 Chicago Blackhawks:
It is the promise vs the broken promises, so many years the Sharks have been favorites to make it to this round but have fell short, while the Blackhawks were chic pick in the pre-season to make it this far. It all comes down to the two teams that were separated by one point and clearly the head of the Western Conference Class, and it will be the year for one of these teams to make their long awaited appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Offensively both of these teams are stacked as both teams have averaged 3 goals a game this postseason (CHI – 3.33 and SJ – 3.09) and have featured a very balanced scoring attack as both teams have had 13 different goal scorers this playoffs. The re-emergence of Jonathan Toews (20 pts in 12 GP) and emergence of Joe Pavelski (15 pts in 11 GP) have paced these two offensive juggernauts. The one thing offensively to watch is can the Sharks keep up with the speed of the Blackhawks who have just skated pass their last two opponents mostly seen with their three shorthanded goals this postseason (13 shorthanded goals in the regular season). The Sharks will have to continue their hot play on the PK also, as both teams have only allowed six power play goals all playoffs.
Chicago beat San Jose three out of four games during the regular season including a 7-2 shellacking in Marian Hossa first game in a Blackhawks uniform in late November. Overall the Blackhawks used that game to outscore the Sharks 17-11 in the season series. The first goal was also significant in the season series as the team that scored first won each game and that was the case for both teams for their current runs. The Sharks are a perfect 4-0 when scoring first and the Blackhawks are 6-1 when getting the all important first goal of the game. Both teams field top lines that can dominant a series with the likes of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley (29 combined points), Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien(41 combined points) manning those lines.
Defensively both teams have players who love to join the rush and use their booming shot on the power play. The Sharks top pairing is a perfect mix of skill and grit as Dan Boyle has bounced back from his own goal vs Colorado with two goals and 11 points and 38 shots. His partner the 6-3, Douglas Murray will be asked to contain the big bodies of Toews and Byfuglien in front of the net. On the other side Norris Trophy finalist Duncan Keith and his partner Brent Seabrook have combined for 14 points and +4 while giving the Blackhawks tough minutes (597:53 combined minutes this postseason). The real development on the Blackhawks backline has been the surprised shorthanded shutdown duo of Brent Sopel and Niklas Hjalmarsson and I haven’t even mentioned Brian Campbell, who is a part of the five man rotation since moving Byfuglien back to winger.
Goaltending is where the Sharks might have the slight edge as Evgeni Nabokov has 76 career playoff starts to Antti Niemi twelve. Niemi is trying to follow the footsteps of Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy and Cam Ward of rookie goalies to win the Stanley Cup. Nabokov is trying to quiet the critics that have said in big games the 34-year-old has come up small with such a talented team in front of him, he is also playing for a contract as he is a free agent at season’s end. Nabokov has shown he can steal a game that in the Sharks' lone win against the Blackhawks this season, a 3-2 victory on Dec. 22 in which the Sharks were outshot 47-14.
Overall, the depth of both teams will be tested as both teams have three lines that are scoring. The Blackhawks have been amazing on the road this playoff with a 6-1 record while the Sharks are 5-1 at home, so something will give with that stat. With that in mind, I predict a long series when these two titans clash and now that my pre-season Stanley Cup pick is out (Canucks) I think the Blackhawks will win this series in 7 games.