For the Chicago Blackhawks, the 2008-09 season has been one to savor, what with a bevy of exciting, young players, an unforgettable Winter Classic at Wrigley Field, and now, a return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
This is heady stuff for youngsters like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith and the thousands who have packed the United Center to bring back "the roar."
In Calgary, the Flames also are spending a few moments savoring a season that produced a 46-30-6 record, another All-Star appearance for Jarome Iginla and a League-leading 45 wins for Miikka Kiprusoff.
In this matchup, the precocious Hawks will run right into a veteran Calgary lineup anchored by Iginla, Craig Conroy, Daymond Langkow and Olli Jokinen, who, ironically, will be playing in his first career playoff game.
With Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Martin Havlat, Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg, there is enough skill up front for Chicago to strike fear into any opponent. And that's with Kane playing on a gimpy ankle and Sharp on a balky leg.
It's the Hawks' experience, or more precisely a lack thereof, that may get called into question. Than again, that's why GM Dale Tallon traded for a gritty, shut-down centerman like Sami Pahlsson at the trade deadline. Pahlsson won the Cup with Anaheim two years ago.
Andrew Ladd also wears a ring, won with Carolina in 2006. Havlat played in an Eastern Conference Final with Ottawa and Sharp did the same in a limited role with Philadelphia, but that's where the experience stops.
Toews, Kane, Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Dave Bolland, Troy Brouwer, Colin Fraser and Adam Burish will be making their first foray into the playoffs, and how they react will determine how far the Hawks can go.
The Flames don't lack in goal scorers, with six players at 20 or more for the season. Plus, they were one of 11 teams in the League to average more than three goals per game.
Since arriving from Phoenix at the trade deadline, feisty Finn Olli Jokinen had instant chemistry playing with Jarome Iginla before some late-season struggles. Their line undoubtedly will draw the opposition's best checkers. Yet, Jokinen and Iginla are tough enough to battle their way to the net. In 19 games with Calgary, Jokinen went 8-7-15 with 3 power-play goals while averaging 21:03 of ice time per game. Iginla finished a point short of his third-straight 90-point season.
There's also plenty of secondary scoring. Mike Cammalleri led the squad in goals with 39, Daymond Langkow is a battle-tested scorer, and Craig Conroy and Todd Bertuzzi are trusted veterans. Rene Bourque was in the midst of a career season before an ankle injury felled him Feb. 19. He'll likely be ready for the postseason.
Speed and skill immediately come to mind when discussing the Hawks' group of blueliners. You won't find many faster or better with the puck than Duncan Keith and Brian Campbell, who finished the regular season with a combined 96 points.
The Hawks' top four is as good as you'll find in the playoffs. Matt Walker, Aaron Johnson and Niklas Hjalmarsson fill out a defensive corps that has been one of the NHL's best.
Rock-solid Dion Phaneuf is the unquestioned leader of Calgary's blue line and a force at both ends of the rink. Among all League defensemen, he was fourth in total ice time and averaged 26:31 per game. His 445:52 total on the power play was tops among all defensemen. Even though the Flames played only seven postseason games last season, Phaneuf was one of only four defensemen to average more than 27 minutes per game (27:06). His 11 goals during the 2008-09 season, however, was a career low.
Jordan Leopold and Adrian Aucoin offensively are capable with 24 and 34 points, respectively. Bangers Cory Sarich and Robyn Regehr helped Calgary finish with an 83.4 penalty-killing percentage, fourth-best in the NHL.
Tale of the tape
G - CGY (#34)
height: 6' 1"
G - CGY (#34)
height: 6' 1"
Miikka Kiprusoff led the League with 45 victories and became the fourth goaltender in NHL history with three or more 40-win seasons. But "Kipper" has not won a playoff series since Calgary's magical run to the 2004 Stanley Cup Final and is 7-12 in the last three postseasons combined.
Tallon made a coaching change four games into the season, dumping Denis Savard in favor of Quenneville. The move gave the Hawks 87 games of playoff coaching experience they did not possess with Savard. Quenneville is coaching in the playoffs for the 10th time, which includes his run with St. Louis to the Western Conference Finals in 2001. His experience is invaluable.
Mike Keenan is a coaching legend and owns the fourth-highest total of regular-season wins in League history. The Flames are the fifth team he's guided to the playoffs, and Keenan's career postseason record is 94-73, including a 3-4 mark with Calgary. Four times he's reached the Stanley Cup Final. There really isn't anything Keenan won't be ready for at this point in his career.
There hasn't been anything particularly special about the power play this season, but it hasn't been terrible. Buoyed mostly by Kane, Toews and Sharp, Chicago finished No. 12 in the League at 19.3 percent. Similarly, the Hawks' penalty kill was so-so, finishing No. 18 in the League at 80.6 percent. Most of that was without Pahlsson, though.
The power play hasn't been anything special, finishing No. 21 in the League with a 17.0-percent success rate, and the Flames have allowed an NHL-high 15 shorthanded goals. Cammalleri finished tied for second in the League with 19 power-play goals. The penalty kill has been much more successful, with an 83.4-percent success rate, good enough to rank fourth in the League.
Dion Phaneuf, Flames -- When he's on top of his game, Phaneuf scores goals just as effectively as he prevents them -- all with a reckless abandon that looks slightly out of control. He'll make the opposition keep its heads up and question its sanity when attempting to block one of his heavy slap shots from the point.
Chicago will win if -- It can overcome the jitters. For many of the Blackhawks, this is the first kick at the Stanley Cup Playoff can, and there is no question playoff hockey requires more -- physically, emotionally and mentally -- than what is asked by the regular season. If the Blackhawks can find a way to answer the questions the playoffs ask of players -- and teams -- they won't have to worry about being overwhelmed before they can catch their breath and figure it out.
Calgary will win if -- It can find some first-line chemistry again. The Flames shook up their team when they acquired Olli Jokinen at the trade deadline, hoping to find a potent first-line pivot to ride between Mike Cammalleri and Jarome Iginla. Jokinen, who never has been to the playoffs, was a perfect fit early, but has gone cold the past two weeks, resulting in slumps for his linemates as well. If Calgary doesn't get production from its first line, things could turn very bleak in a hurry.