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Bitter foes to meet again in Conference Semis

by Adam Kimelman

Here we go again. The Blackhawks and Canucks renew what's rapidly becoming one of the nastier rivalries in the League. They played six hard-fought games last year, and followed that with four very physical regular-season contests.

There was Willie Mitchell's knockout hit on Jonathan Toews, Ryan Kesler and Andrew Ladd's war of fists and words, and Alexandre Burrows and Duncan Keith squaring off.

"It should be a pretty interesting matchup," Burrows told the Vancouver Sun. "There are a lot of guys on their team that we know and we have rivalries against. We'd like to play them again and beat them."

Chicago likely will come back with last year's successful formula of crashing the Vancouver net with impunity and trying to rattle Roberto Luongo, while the Canucks will do their best to get Blackhawks netminder Antti Niemi off his game.

They may not have been the high-scoring squad they were during the regular season -- an outstanding defensive effort by Nashville certainly had something to do with that -- but the Blackhawks have more then enough up-front talent to fill the nets.

Patrick Kane had 4 goals against the Predators, including the game-tying score in the waning seconds of regulation in Game 5. And captain Jonathan Toews got better as the series went on; he had three straight multi-point games to close the series, and scored the series-winning goal in Game 6.

Those two may get the headlines, but the Blackhawks' strength is their offensive depth. Ten players had at least one goal against the Predators, and they had six players with 20 goals during the regular season.

Adding Mikael Samuelsson to the wing alongside the Sedin twins was the shot in the arm that powered Vancouver into the second round. That threesome combined for 12 goals and 29 points in the first round against the Kings. Samuelsson especially was outstanding, scoring a League-high 7 goals, and his 11 points are second only to Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby.

However, they'll need more than just their top line contributing offense if they hope to advance.

"It's not going to be Mikael scoring seven goals every series," said Henrik Sedin. "We are going to need different lines to step up and come to the forefront at different times."

Ryan Kesler and Alexandre Burrows, who combined for 60 goals in the regular season, had just 2 in the first round.

Duncan Keith was a Norris Trophy finalist during the regular season, but was off his game against the Predators, finishing with 2 points and a minus-4 rating. Still, he had 14 goals, 69 points and a plus-29 rating during the season, so it's not like he's forgotten how to play.

Niklas Hjalmarsson, though, had a breakout series. He had a goal and an assist in Game 5 and was a plus-6 in the series.

While as a group they didn't score like they did in the regular season -- their blue line had 35 goals in the regular season, but just 2 in the playoffs -- the Blackhawks stayed strong in their zone, allowing just 27.7 shots per game.

Between injuries and inconsistent play, Vancouver used eight blueliners in the first round against the Kings. Their top four of Kevin Bieksa, Alexander Edler, Christian Ehrhoff and Sami Salo were strong from beginning to end, in all three zones. All three chipped in offensively -- each had a goal and 2 assists -- while finishing as plus players, led by Edler's plus-7.

Their biggest task in this series likely is going to be keeping the crease clear for goalie Roberto Luongo. The Canucks' inability to keep the crease cleared of net-crashing Chicago forwards was one of the reasons Vancouver's season ended in the second round last year.

Antti Niemi had a pair of shutouts en route to winning his first-ever playoff series as a professional. The assumed weak link for the Blackhawks, he looked nothing like that against the Predators. While he didn't see a whole lot of rubber thanks to the Blackhawks' strong defense in front of him, he made the important saves at the important times.

Roberto Luongo is ready for another round of crease-crashing Blackhawks forwards. All the action in the blue paint seemed to rattle Luongo at times last year, but he said he's ready for that this year.

"It's part of every team in every series," he said. "That's what they do, traffic in front of the net, try to get the goalie off his game. It's part of hockey now."

All season long, Joel Quenneville has not allowed his team to relax for one second, so don't think he's going to stop now. He's not afraid to mix up line combinations or defense pairings if he doesn't like something. And if Niemi has a hiccup, he won't hesitate to go with backup Cristobal Huet.

Alain Vigneault has transitioned from a defense-first game plan to more of an attacking style, and his players certainly have responded. There's also a respect factor from the locker room that allows him to rip his players publicly and have them respond favorably, like he did after Game 2 against the Kings.

Chicago's power play was nearly non-existent during the first round, scoring just four goals in 23 chances. With their high-powered attack, there's no reason it can't be better against Vancouver, which had a rough time killing L.A. power plays in the first round.

The Hawks' penalty killing was exemplary, as they allowed the Predators as many shorthanded goals (one) as power-play goals.

The Canucks allowed more than half of the Kings' goals to come on the man-advantage (10 of 18). And while the power play hit on 25.0-percent of its chances against L.A., they had just one extra-man goal in its last 11 chances in Games 5 and 6.

"(The) big difference right now is specialty teams," Vigneault said during the first round. "If we expect to win the series, we've got to start doing that." Those comments are just as valid for the second round.

Dustin Byfuglien, Blackhawks -- The Chicago forward spent almost as much time in the Vancouver crease as Luongo last year, and it's likely he'll be setting up shop there again this year. Byfuglien is big and tough to move, and has underrated hands around the net.

Steve Bernier, Canucks -- Bernier, a solidly-built power forward, had 4 goals in six games against the Kings, more than doubling his previous career playoff goal total of 3 in 32 games. With so much focus placed on the Sedin twins and Samuelsson, Bernier could be an under-the-radar weapon for Vancouver.

Blackhawks will win if … Niemi certainly will see more rubber from the Canucks then he did in the first round. Some goalies get better the higher the shot totals go; if Niemi fits that category, Chicago should have no problem dispatching Vancouver again.

Canucks will win if … Luongo can see the shots, he'll be able to stop them. Last year, the Blackhawks made that nearly impossible. This year, it will be up to the Vancouver defensemen to be far more responsible in keeping the shooting lanes and the front of the net clear for Luongo.

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