West Final follows plan: No. 1 Sharks vs. No. 2 Hawks
Sharks vs. Blackhawks (Bill Smith/NHLI)
The Western Conference has followed the seeding, with the top-ranked Sharks facing the second-seeded Blackhawks for the right to compete for the Stanley Cup.
This also figures to be a boon of a series for hockey fans who have storylines galore to savor, like the continued rise of previously unknown Chicago goalie Antti Niemi, Brian Campbell's return from injury, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane again commanding the spotlight and the specter of Dustin Byfuglien being a house to move from the San Jose net.
And then there is Doug Wilson, the former Blackhawks great and now the architect of the Sharks; Dany Heatley and Marian Hossa, once traded for one another, now being called upon to provide offense; as well as Hossa looking for a third-straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final with a third different team.
After a lackluster first round against Colorado, San Jose's "Big Three" were dominant in the conference semifinal against Detroit and enter the series against Chicago white hot. Joe Thornton drew many accolades for playing perhaps the best all-round playoff series of his career. He posted a team-high 8 points (3 goals, 5 assists) against the Red Wings, and linemates Heatley (2-5-7) and Patrick Marleau (2-2-4) didn't disappoint, either. Previously, the trio totaled only 1 goal and 10 points in six games against the Avalanche.
Their most consistent scorer has by far been Joe Pavelski. After scoring 5 goals and 8 points against Colorado, he remained hot with 4 goals and 7 points against Detroit. Five of Pavelski's scores have come on the power play, three have counted as game-winners, and he has a team-leading 52 shots, and a plus-7 rating in 11 games. Only Marleau (21:23) has more ice time per game among the team's forwards than Pavelski (21:10), who also has won 53.3 percent of his faceoffs (89 for 167).
Pavelski's linemates, Devin Setoguchi and Ryane Clowe, didn't fare well in the Detroit series, totaling 3 goals and an assist. Those two accounted for 4 goals and 14 points in the first round.
Versatile Manny Malhotra is second with a 61.7-percent faceoff winning percentage (87 for 141) among all NHL players who have taken at least 100 face-offs in the postseason.
The balance that Chicago showed in its regular-season scoring -- six 20-goal scorers, 11 with at least 10 -- was on display against Vancouver, as nine different forwards scored their 23 goals in six games. Jonathan Toews and Dustin Byfuglien led the way with 4 goals each, and Patrick Kane and Kris Versteeg added 3 goals each.
Chicago was at its best when it got bodies to the net -- check Byfuglien's Game 3 hat trick for evidence of that. When Chicago struggled, however, is when they got away from plan.
"The second opportunities and making him (Roberto Luongo) fight through the screens and traffic generates higher-quality scoring chances," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said during the Vancouver series. "It's something we've got to do. We've got to improve in that area." That same plan will hold true against the Sharks.
No surprise to see Dan Boyle among the League's leading blue-line scorers with 2 goals and 9 points in 11 games. He also is fourth among all skaters in ice time per game (27:03). But what is a shocker is seeing physical, defensive-minded Douglas Murray with a goal and 6 points. He was 4-13-17 in 79 regular-season games.
Rookie Jason Demers hasn't looked out of place and has done quite a bit with only 13:16 of ice time per game (2:30 on the power play), recording 4 assists.
Rob Blake (1-1-2) and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (0-2-2) have gotten the job done defensively. Defensive defenseman Niclas Wallin returned to the lineup in the clincher against Detroit after missing nine games with a lower-body injury.
After first rounds they'd like to forget, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were their usual strong selves against the Canucks, combining for 2 goals, 6 assists and a plus-8 rating.
As a defensive unit, however, they shut down the Canucks' biggest offensive weapons. Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin and Mikael Samuelsson, who combined for 12 goals, 29 points and a plus-21 rating in six games in the first round against the Kings, were limited to just 4 goals, 14 points and a minus-7 rating by the Blackhawks. Samuelsson, who scored 7 goals in the first round, found the back of the net just once against Chicago.
The Blackhawks don't have a crease-clearing monster to scare other teams, but their mobility and willingness to jump into the offensive attack does just as much to keep other teams on their heels.
Evgeni Nabokov has played all but 40 minutes this postseason, and is tied for first in wins (eight), fourth in goals-against average (2.43), and 10th in save percentage (.907). Like Thornton, he, too, has come under fire in recent postseason for lackluster performances, but Nabokov is now two wins away from matching his single-season playoff best, achieved in 2004, the last time San Jose advanced to the conference final. Six times Nabokov has had to make as many as 25 saves in a game, and he's 5-1 in those contests.
"We're going to go as far as Nabby takes us. He's been the backbone of this team all year long," Thornton said after the clincher against Detroit.
Throw out his stinker in Game 1 and Antti Niemi was solid against the Canucks, allowing two goals or fewer three times in the final five games. And he saved his best effort of the series for Game 6, stopping 29 of 30 shots as the Blackhawks closed the series.
Todd McLellan, Sharks -- Has taken the perennially underachieving Sharks where only one other coach -- Ron Wilson -- has taken them before, the Western Conference Final. In doing so, he bested his mentor Mike Babcock, formerly McLellan's boss in Detroit. He also showed due patience with the Thornton-Marleau-Heatley line in the first round when the trio struggled.
Joel Quenneville, Blackhawks -- Has been here before -- this will be his third trip as a coach to the Western Conference Finals -- so the moment won't overwhelm him. He also has shown he won't hesitate to make lineup changes if he senses any let-down in his team.
San Jose's power play has been a middle-of-the-pack unit during the postseason, operating at 19.3 percent (11 for 57). The power play has been better at home (9 for 36, 25.0) than on the road (2 for 21, 9.5 percent).
"If we work hard and play our game and do it longer, we're going to find a way to win. Whether it's a good bounce or a good play, or a bad bounce, we should be able to overcome those things."
-- Joe Pavelski
"Last season, after getting this far, maybe we got a little too excited for the next round against Detroit. I don't think that will happen again."
-- Kris Versteeg
As far as killing penalties, the Sharks have done quite well at 84.2 percent (6 for 38). At home, they have killed penalties at 90.9 percent (2 for 22), and on the road are 75 percent (4 for 16).
It seemed like every time Vancouver made a mistake, the Blackhawks capitalized with a power-play goal, scoring seven times in 28 chances over six games. That kind of success plants seeds in the opposition about being careful, rather than just playing.
Chicago has done a brilliant job killing penalties, succeeding 88.7-percent of the time, and their three shorthanded goals represent half the entire League total for the playoffs.
Joe Pavelski, Sharks -- The sparkling performance of the diminutive center is the reason why teams can't key their defensive efforts toward stopping San Jose's top line. Pavelski has posted at least one point in seven of 11 games, and has five multi-point efforts and three 2-goal games (all consecutive).
John Madden, Blackhawks -- It was Nov. 29, 2005 when Madden, then with the Devils, beat Joe Thornton, then with the Bruins, on a last-minute faceoff that led to New Jersey's winning goal; a day later Thornton was traded to the Sharks. Five years later, Madden again will be needed to stop Thornton.
Sharks will win if … If they continue to play disciplined hockey. Through two rounds they were shorthanded only 38 times while drawing a League-high 57 power-play opportunities. Their conference final opponent, Chicago, has had trouble staying out of the box, playing shorthanded 53 times, though the Blackhawks have been efficient at killing the penalties (88.7 percent).
Blackhawks will win if … Chicago is a far grittier and deeper team offensively. If they use that sandpaper to their advantage, they can wear down the Sharks' top forwards and use their scoring depth to carry them to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1992.