-- The Blackhawks got to the Stanley Cup Final because they came back from early deficits to beat both Nashville and Vancouver in six games, then swept the San Jose Sharks
in the Western Conference Final.
With the Philadelphia Flyers
on deck, the final hurdle to clear in order to snap Chicago's Stanley Cup drought one year shy of 50, we ask these five questions of the Blackhawks heading into Game 1 Saturday night at United Center (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS):
Will Hossa find his scoring touch again?
has been one of the Blackhawks' best forwards in the postseason -- but he gets paid to score and he hasn't been doing that. He was particularly unlucky against San Jose and wound up with zero goals in the four games despite a plethora of quality chances. Hossa has only 2 goals in the playoffs and admits he's frustrated by that, but it hasn't affected his game because he's still a force with the puck and he's become one of the Hawks' best defensive forwards and penalty-killers. Still, you have to wonder how long the Hawks can go without their $8 million forward producing.
How does Quenneville deploy the checkers?
Chicago's checking line of Dave Bolland
, Kris Versteeg
and Andrew Ladd
blanketed the Sharks' big three of Joe Thornton
, Patrick Marleau
and Dany Heatley
in the last round. Only Marleau found his way to the net. Thornton and Heatley were shut out largely because of the Hawks' checkers. If Peter Laviolette
keeps his top line of Simon Gagne
, Mike Richards
and Jeff Carter
together for Game 1, Quenneville will have the option of using his checking line against those guys. Or, he could prefer power-on-power and go with his No. 1 line of Jonathan Toews
, Patrick Kane
and Dustin Byfuglien
against the Flyers' top trio. With the last change for Games 1 and 2, Quenneville should be able to get the matchup he wants, whatever that may be.
How healthy is Ladd?
Speaking of the Hawks' checkers, one of them enters this series as a question mark. Ladd injured his shoulder midway through the first period of Game 4 against San Jose and didn't return. He says he's going to give it a try in Game 1. If he can't play, Tomas Kopecky
is the likely candidate to replace him, but will that could force Quenneville to shake up his lines and perhaps move Ben Eager
or Adam Burish
up to the third line if he doesn't trust Kopecky to play in a checking role. Quenneville could opt to put John Madden
, a former Selke Trophy winner, on the wing with Bolland and Versteeg, but that means the fourth line will be without a true center. Ladd's health will dictate what Quenneville eventually does.
Can "Big Buff" come up big again?
The big guy has goals in each of the last five games and eight in his last eight games, including four game-winners. Byfuglien scored the deciding goal in three of the four games against San Jose and also had a hat trick in Game 3 against Vancouver. He's been on a tear largely because the Canucks and Sharks had no answer for him in front of the net. The Flyers do. Chris Pronger
will be tasked with battling him, and it will definitely be Byfuglien's biggest challenge to date. Pronger's big enough and has a wide enough wingspan to frustrate even Chicago's 6-foot-4, 257-pound power forward.
Is Niemi a Cup-worthy goalie?
has proven that he is, indeed, a championship-caliber goaltender so far. A relative unknown coming into the playoffs, Niemi is 12-4 with a 2.33 goals-against average, .921 save percentage and two shutouts in the playoffs. He gave up only one goal on 45 shots in Game 1 against San Jose and stopped 44 of 46 shots to win Game 3 in overtime. Goaltending was once considered the Hawks' weakest area, but Niemi has made it one of their strongest. He's so cool under pressure that there's no reason to think he will be anything short of spectacular again.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl