The San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks are set to tangle in the Western Conference Finals, with a chance to play for the Stanley Cup on the line.
How They Got Here: The top-seeded Sharks defeated the Colorado Avalanche in six games in their Western Conference Quarterfinal series. San Jose came back from 1-0 and 2-1 series deficits through a tension-filled first four games before busting out with a lopsided victory in Game 5 and then pulling out Game 6. With their top scorers stymied, the Sharks followed the lead of a second line centered by Joe Pavelski, who scored three pivotal goals among his series-leading five.
The Sharks then dispatched the two-time defending Western Conference champion Detroit Red Wings 4-1 in the Western Conference Semifinals. Each Sharks win was a one-goal decision, coming in a variety of ways. They jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead and held on for a 4-3 win in Game 1, staged a two-goal, third-period rally to win by the same score in Game 2 and gained a stranglehold on the series by overcoming a two-goal deficit in the third period of a 4-3 overtime win at Detroit in Game 3. Joe Thornton led the Sharks in scoring with 8 points (3 goals, 5 assists).
The second-seeded Blackhawks defeated the Nashville Predators in six games in their Western Conference Quarterfinal series. Rallying from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits in the series, the Hawks rode two Antti Niemi shutouts to get even through four games. They took their first lead in the series with a wild 5-4 Game 5 victory in which they needed a Patrick Kane shorthanded goal with 14 seconds left in regulation to get to overtime, where Marian Hossa scored upon emerging from the penalty box. Chicago settled down to salt away the series upon emerging from a dizzying first period of Game 6 with a 4-3 lead and winning 5-3.
For the second consecutive year the Blackhawks posted a six-game series victory over the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference Semifinals, clinching the series one year to the day after doing so in 2009. Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews was the series' dominant figure, leading all scorers with 12 points (4 goals, 8 assists) in six games, highlighted by a five-point performance (3-2-5) in a 7-4 win at Vancouver in Game 4. Chicago forward Dustin Byfuglien was a fixture in front of the Vancouver goal, tallying 4 goals to match Toews for the club goal-scoring lead.
Regular-season series: Chicago won three of the four regular-season meetings, two in overtime, outscoring the Sharks 17-11. Defenseman Duncan Keith led all scorers with seven points, all assists, and RW Troy Brouwer tallied 3-2-5, was plus-5, scored one overtime goal and helped set up the other. Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov went 1-1-2 with a 3.78 GAA for the Sharks, while Cristobal Huet was in the Hawks net for all four games, posting a 3-1 record and 2.73 GAA.
Unfamiliar foes: The Sharks and Blackhawks have never met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, nor have any current Sharks or Blackhawks faced the other in the postseason. Blackhawks starting goaltender Antti Niemi has never faced the Sharks in regular-season play either.
Popular in both markets: Sharks GM Doug Wilson is one of the most popular figures in the history of both franchises. A first-round draft choice (No. 6) by the Blackhawks in 1977, Wilson played 14 seasons in Chicago and still ranks as the club’s highest-scoring defenseman in points (779, fifth overall), goals (225, 12th overall) and assists (554, third overall). Wilson ranks fifth all-time in games played (938) for Chicago. In addition, he led all Blackhawks defensemen in scoring for nine consecutive seasons (1981-82 through 1989-90) and captured the Norris Trophy as the League's top defenseman in 1981-82 when he tallied 39 goals and 85 points -- still Blackhawks single-season records for goals and points for a defenseman. He represented the Blackhawks in seven All-Star Games and was inducted into the Chicago Sports Hall of Fame in September 1999.
Acquired by San Jose from Chicago just before the Sharks' inaugural season in 1991-92, Wilson brought instant credibility to the fledgling franchise. Highlighting Wilson's two-year playing tenure in San Jose: serving as the franchise’s first captain, being the team’s first representative in the All-Star Game (1992) and playing in his NHL-milestone 1,000th game.
Wilson joined the Sharks front office in 1997 as director of pro development and was named GM prior to the 2003-04 season.
Former Shark in Chicago: Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell had a brief yet productive career with the Sharks in 2007-08. Acquired from Buffalo at the trade deadline, Campbell tallied 19 points and a plus-9 rating over the final 20 games of the regular season as the Sharks went 16-2-2 down the stretch.
Campbell notched seven points (1 goal, 6 assists) in 13 playoff games as the Sharks eliminated Calgary in the first round before falling to the Dallas Stars in round two. He signed with the Blackhawks as an unrestricted free agent the following summer.
This marks the fourth time in the past five seasons that Campbell has reached the Conference Finals. He made the final four as a member of the Buffalo Sabres in 2006 and 2007 and with the Blackhawks in 2009.
Olympic reunion: The Western Conference Final will feature 14 players who participated at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver this past February, including nine who skated in the classic gold medal game between Canada and the United States.
The Sharks have eight Olympians, tied for the most in the League: Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley and Dan Boyle (Canada); Joe Pavelski (USA); Douglas Murray (Sweden); Evgeni Nabokov (Russia) and Thomas Greiss (Germany).
The Blackhawks have six Olympians: Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook (Canada); Marian Hossa and Tomas Kopecky (Slovakia) and Patrick Kane (USA).
Badger reunion: Adam Burish of the Blackhawks has a well-deserved reputation for badgering opponents but he will have a tougher time with Sharks forward Joe Pavelski -- the pair were teammates on the University of Wisconsin Badgers in 2004-05 and 2005-06. Their time there culminated in an NCAA championship, the men's team's first since 1990. Burish and Pavelski earned assists on both Wisconsin goals in a 2-1 victory over Boston College in the title game.
Hossa's baaaaaaack: Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa has advanced to the Conference Final round for the third consecutive season with different clubs, having previously reached the final four with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008 and Detroit Red Wings in 2009. The last player to do this was 15-year, 425-goal man Brian Propp, who appeared with Philadelphia in 1989, Boston in 1990 and Minnesota in 1991.
Late-round steals: Much of the crowd that jammed Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville for the 2003 Entry Draft had long since gone home, but the scouting staffs at the Sharks and Blackhawks tables were still busy adding key parts of the puzzle. In the seventh round, the Sharks used the 205th selection to take Joe Pavelski from the Waterloo Black Hawks of the USHL. In the eighth round (No. 245), the Blackhawks nabbed Dustin Byfuglien from the WHL Prince George Cougars.
Long time coming: Regardless of who emerges from his highly-anticipated series, the winning fan base will be celebrating a historic trip to the Stanley Cup Final. The Sharks have yet to appear in a Final, while the Blackhawks would be making their first appearance since 1992 and their second in 37 years.
San Jose Sharks
Jumbo Joe: Center Joe Thornton enjoyed the finest playoff series of his 12-year NHL career in the second-round victory over Detroit, recording single-series highs in goals (3) and points (8). He scored the game-winner late in the third period of Game 2 and set up Patrick Marleau's overtime winner in Game 3. Thornton enters the Western Conference Final with a six-game point streak and goals in three of his past four games.
Mr. Clutch: Center Joe Pavelski led San Jose in scoring during its first-round series win over the Avalanche, tallying eight points (5 goals, 3 assists) in six games. He scored a last-minute, game-tying goal in Game 2, notched the overtime winner in Game 4 and tallied the series-clinching goal in Game 6. He continued his heroics in the opening game of round two, tallying two goals including the game-winner and an assist in a 4-3 win over Detroit.
And his wingmen: Pavelski's line -- he skated for the most part with Ryan Clowe and Devin Setoguchi -- combined for nine goals and 22 points in the first round and accounted for almost half of the Sharks’ offense in their win over Colorado.
Toews on fire: Chicago captain Jonathan Toews enters the Conference Final with an active nine-game scoring streak, tallying 19 points (6 goals, 13 assists) in that span. He leads all scorers in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs with 6-14-20 in 12 games. Skating in his second NHL postseason, Toews has 33 points (13 goals, 20 assists) in 29 career postseason games. His 1.14 points-per-game pace is the best in Blackhawks history.
Superb penalty-killing: The Blackhawks ranked third in the League during the regular season with an 85.3% success rate on the penalty kill and are second in the playoffs at 88.7%. Additionally, the Blackhawks are a threat to score: they notched a League-leading 13 shorthanded goals in the regular season and have three in the postseason. Their latest, Dave Bolland's tally late in the second period at Vancouver on Tuesday gave the Blackhawks a 3-0 lead en route to a series-clinching 5-1 win in Game 6 of their Western Conference Semifinal.
Road warriors: The Blackhawks are 5-1 on the road in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, outscoring the opposition 26-14. Their power-play is clicking at 32.1% away from home (9 for 28) and their penalty-killing success is 88.0% (22 for 25).