Here's our first installment of "What's the Hitch?" to break down Game 1 of the Western Conference Final (Sunday, May 16, 3 ET, NBC, TSN, RDS):
Chicago's "Hitch": Undo Sharks' puck movement in offensive zone
"The biggest challenge for Chicago to is how to stop the San Jose cycle. The Sharks have lots of width and depth moving the puck in the offensive zone. They play in back of the net well, bringing the puck to the net from the goal line. Detroit had a lot of trouble stopping that (in the second round).
"The way to overcome that cycle is to put a primary focus on exiting the zone quick and fast. That was Detroit's game plan, but it is difficult with the Sharks. They are so good on the boards. Plus, they are so good on the faceoff dot. They win a lot of faceoffs and win the scrambles off the faceoffs too."
Coach's eye for details:
San Jose has the "weightiest" forwards in the League. They will wear you out over 60 minutes. You want as little time in your own zone as possible if you are Chicago.
San Jose has six people who take the faceoffs and win them consistently better than most faceoff men in the League. If a team has four of those guys, it's a good thing. Manny Malhotra
is an unsung faceoff man. "He's a natural center playing on the wing right now," says Hitch.
"In the playoffs, top players typically negate each other, so it ends up falling to secondary players to pick up the scoring or on the boards or whatever is needed. Winning teams get those performances from the secondary players. San Jose is getting that production from Clowe, Pavelski, Malhotra, Mitchell and Setoguchi."
San Jose's "Hitch": Don't play Blackhawks' pace and tempo
"Chicago puts pressure on every team when on top of its game. They bring such a high tempo and pace through all four lines. It's the only team in the League that can play at such as high tempo with all four lines. It doesn't matter who is on that fourth line -- Bolland, Eager, Burish, Kopecky -- all of them skate fast, bang hard and have puck skills. Chicago really dialed it up in Game 6 against the Canucks, in fact all three games in Vancouver (all wins).
"The biggest challenge for the Sharks is they need to play at their tempo, not Chicago's. Both teams play all out and set a high pace. Neither team is conservative. But San Jose plays at a different tempo when it's winning. The idea is to seize the tempo, play it your way and make Chicago defend. Fire the puck on their net, make the goalie work, put the puck all the way to the end boards so those defensemen have to skate all the way back, hang onto the puck so you wear people down."
Coach's eye for details:
Chicago has four and maybe five defensemen who can join the attack. Campbell, Hjalmarsson, Keith, Seabrook -- it unnerves you. "When you are unnerved, you hesitate. When you hesitate, you are caught flat-footed," says Hitch. Not good when Kane, Toews, Hossa, Sharp and others are coming your way.
Short shifts are critical to Chicago's high-tempo game. If their players are averaging more like 30 seconds per shift, rather than 45 seconds, that will translate to their fast, high-tempo game.
"It's important to remember San Jose had a week's layoff (after closing out Detroit May 15). A team coming off that sort of long break needs a level of animosity to get back to a high level of play. San Jose will benefit from anything that raises its animosity as a team early the game."