CANUCKS at BLACKHAWKS
Season series: Chicago and Vancouver split four regular-season meetings, with each team winning once on its opponent's home ice. Antti Niemi, who took over the starting job for the Blackhawks late in the season, stopped all 30 shots he faced in a 1-0 win at GM Place on Nov. 22. It was his only win in three decisions against the Canucks, while Roberto Luongo split his four starts. Mikael Samuelsson, who had a huge first round of the playoffs, led all scorers in the regular-season series with three goals.
Big story: Major rivalries don't often develop between teams from separate divisions, but this is the second consecutive postseason in which Chicago and Vancouver have met with a berth in the Western Conference Finals at stake, and it's safe to say the requisite level of dislike has built. Young stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are set on taking the Blackhawks a step further this year, with their sights set on the Stanley Cup Final. Luongo, who earned a gold medal for Canada in his home arena in February, is looking to cap his season by leading the Canucks to the pinnacle of NHL success.
"There is a rivalry," the veteran goaltender acknowledged. "(But) it makes for some good games. Every time we play them there's some high intensity games, back-and-forth. Call it whatever you like, but for our side, we're excited and ready to go."
Canucks: Whatever mistakes Vancouver made in its first-round, six-game series win over Los Angeles were quickly covered up by its cadre of dangerous weapons on offense. Samuelsson led the NHL during the conference quarterfinals in goals. He and Daniel Sedin each hit double digits in points. Henrik Sedin only scored one goal, but he led the Canucks in assists and put up eight points in the series. He is also a finalist for the Hart Trophy as regular-season MVP. At the moment that's the least of his concerns, however. Sedin and his teammates have some other hardware they would like to pick up.
"Well, I hope someone on this team wins the Conn Smythe because it means we've gone deep," he told the Vancouver Sun, referring to the trophy awarded to the MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. "Whoever it is, it doesn't really matter but we'd like to have a few candidates in there, for sure."
Blackhawks: The stakes get higher with each playoff round for the rookie Niemi. He got the best of another goalie making his postseason debut, Nashville's Pekka Rinne, in a six-game series win for Chicago. Niemi shut out the Predators twice in the first four games, but had his shaky moments over the final two, although the Blackhawks came out on top both times. Now he'll stare down the ice at Luongo, who, despite being regarded as one of the League's elite at his position, has not advanced past the second round in two previous tries. How do the two goaltenders match up?
"They're a lot different as far as mechanics go, that's for sure," Kane told the Chicago Tribune. "With Antti, you look at him in the net (and) he doesn't look like a really big guy (listed at 6 feet 2 and 210 pounds), but he gets the job done anyway. Antti just finds pucks and seems to block them. Luongo (6-3, 217) is probably one of the biggest goaltenders in the League, and he just seems to get his body on everything."
Who's hot: Daniel Sedin scored the series-clinching goal for the Canucks late in Game 6 and had three goals and five assists over the final four games against the Kings. Samuelsson scored seven goals in the first five games and assisted on two goals in the finale. He has since been tied for the NHL lead in goals after Joe Pavelski tallied twice in the Sharks' Game 1 win over the Red Wings in their conference semifinal.
Toews led the Blackhawks in the first round with eight points -- seven of them came during the final three games, including the decisive power-play goal and two assists to wrap things up in the Game 6 victory. Patrick Sharp also had a goal and two assists in the clincher. Marian Hossa finished with a goal and six assists, all over the final four games.
Injury report: Vancouver forward Ryan Johnson, who broke his foot in early April, is progressing quicker than expected and could return to the lineup at some point in this series. Samuelsson did not practice Thursday because of a sore back, but he's expected to be in the lineup Saturday.
Stat pack: The Canucks struck for a 25-percent success rate on the power play in ousting the Kings, but their own penalty-killing unit got torched even worse, allowing goals on 38.5 percent of their shorthanded situations. It's safe to say if the Blackhawks convert at nearly a 40-percent clip, they will again be the team moving on.
"We can't win this series if our PK is where we were during the L.A. series," Daniel Sedin told the Sun. "We know we have a good PK and are going to be better at that part the game. Our power play was decent, but it can still be better."
Puck drop: While it undoubtedly fanned the flames of this budding rivalry when Vancouver defenseman Willie Mitchell knocked Toews out of their Oct. 21 meeting and Chicago's subsequent six games with an open-ice hit that caused a concussion, the incident will play little part in this series. For one, Mitchell will be out of the lineup, not having played since a Jan. 16 hit by Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin led to a concussion of his own. Also, he and Toews have put the incident behind them.
"You kind of want to get revenge a little bit … when you play against the player who put you in that situation," Toews told the Tribune. "There's definitely no hard feelings. I got a call from Willie Mitchell (after the hit), and he explained that he's had some trouble with concussions.
"I definitely appreciate when a player does something like that and shows the respect he has. He was just playing his game."