Detroit Red Wings
Season Series: Detroit 3-1
Some people wouldn’t have even expected the San Jose Sharks to get out of the first round due to their previous collapses in their recent history but here they are, in the Western Conference semi-finals playing against the Detroit Red Wings. It seemed early on in round one that Colorado was going to give the Sharks a scare taking early leads in the series by winning games one and three but if you’re looking only at the outcome of the series, it seems much closer than it truly was. The reason I say this is because of the following… in games one and three, Nabokov was able to stop 34 of the 37 shots fired his way, which is pretty good. The problem was Colorado’s Craig Anderson saved 76 of 77 (and 51 of 51 in a game three shutout). The Av’s also won game three on a flukey goal early in overtime, which after 60 minutes of scoreless hockey, was no way to see it end. Alright, who am I kidding, as much as statistically the Sharks dominated by getting more shots and controlling the puck, the first four games we way to close for comfort as each game was tied going into the final minute of the third period. Both the Sharks and the Avalanche were able to win a game in the final minute as well as notching an overtime victory but in game five, it was the Sharks who decided to wake up and play they way they have all season, only to crush Colorado 5-0. San Jose was able to ride the momentum from game five into Colorado for 5-2 victory in game six (two empty net goals). For a team who won the Western Conference though, they certainly didn’t start the playoffs the way everyone expected them too. Or maybe they did, after all, they do historically crap themselves come playoff time.
The Sharks big three, Heatley, Marleau and Thornton combined for 254 points in 243 combined regular season games this year and through out round one of the playoffs (17 combined games) only mustered an abysmal 10 points together against the Av’s (included only one goal) and Heatley and Thornton never even scored themselves. One goal and nine assist WON’T cut it. The Sharks certainly didn’t win the series by the play of their superstars but it was the steady and consistent play of their entire team. The team has been lead by players like Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi and Ryan Clowe and I am not saying those players aren’t good but if Heatley, Thornton and Marleau don’t step it up and get back to producing a point a game (as they did turning the regular season), you’ll see them exit from the playoffs disappointing fans. Evgeni Nabokov has been San Jose’s top performer in all games but two (which one of them, the Sharks won 6-5), as he has down a fabulous job of keeping the puck out of the net and giving his team the best chance to win. The way the Sharks played in the first series won’t be enough as the playoffs move along but if San Jose can knuckle down and play the hockey that got them to where they, they should prevail. Problem is, if they don’t, I don’t have enough confidence in the Sharks other players and the pressure Nabokov will start to feel knowing the three main players on his team have for one reason or another decided to shut it down, will leave San Jose’s Stanley Cup chances laying solely in his lands.
This situation couldn’t be more perfect for the Detroit Red Wings as they are matched up against the San Jose Sharks, who year after year collapse in the playoffs and put a team in a position no one thought they’d be in. Detroit though, isn’t even that team who “no one expects” to be there. After all, we are talking about the two-time defending Western Conference Champions. Not only were the Red Wings dominant in the season series against San Jose (they won 3-1) but their only loss came in the hands of a shoot-out and they outscored San Jose 12-7. The last time they played against each other was back in February but remember the amount of injuries the Red Wings were playing with back at that point of the season was insane, and still, they we able to knock off the Sharks in almost every game. The success doesn’t stop there for Detroit either as Vancouver dropped three of the four games to Detroit and the Blackhawks and Wings split the season series at three games a piece (teams remaining in the West). Detroit through-out the whole year was looking like they wouldn’t make the playoffs and when they got healthy again, were able to make a push for the post-season and not only made it but moved up into the fifth seed and knocked off the Phoenix Coyotes (as I predicted), and allowed other teams such as Nashville, Colorado and Los Angeles deal with the best in the west. The Red Wings didn’t have an easy time with Coyotes but its prepared them for San Jose and if they win, the winner of Vancouver-Chicago. Detroit knows they can beat any remaining team in the West… they just have to do it.
One thing that’s certain is that this Detroit squad can not be taken lightly by any team in the NHL, or fan, or predictor, or better. No one can take the Red Wings lightly. Regardless of team records, player stats, playoff experience, injuries, team history or anything else anyone wants to argue in any way, the Detroit Red Wings are the team to beat in the Western Conference and this is something the Sharks know. They also know they are going to have a hard time moving onto the Western Conference Finals. Before the Phoenix-Detroit series I had stated that the inexperience of Jimmy Howard would be big in the playoffs, and I also said ‘Who?’ afterwards and drew quite a bit of flack from Red Wings fans. Well, it certainly was to stir some controversy but to the fans of Detroit, I do apologize as Howard played extremely well in the first round and exceeded my expectations. His goals against average may have been higher than one would like but to counter, his save percentage was great and making a long story short, if San Jose’s big three don’ t get their act together, you are going to see Jimmy Howard leading the Red Wings to their third-consecutive conference final. It won’t be all Jimmy Howard though because now that Detroit is healthy, they’re putting up the steady point totals everyone has come to expect year after year. Zetterberg leads the way but the names you hear night-in-night-out such as Datsyuk, Franzen, Holmstrom, Filppula, Kronwall, Lidstrom etc. have all put the Red Wings back in contention. Even the addition of Bertuzzi has been more pivotal than I expected it would have been and if Eaves, Williams, Lilja, Draper and some of those guys start putting the puck in the net themselves… you are looking at the best team in the Western Conference. No question, especially with how the looked in game seven.
Season Series: Tied 2-2
The Chicago Blackhawks are in a sense lucky to be in the semi-finals against Vancouver and the only reason I say that is because of Nashville’s HORRIBLE powerplay (the Predators had a 3.7% efficiency rate on the PP). If Nashville had of had a powerplay like the Vancouver Canucks do, the series would not have gone in Chicago’s favour. With that being said, no, I am not writing off the Blackhawks in this series. They (by record) are the better team, and are a young, talented fast-paced squad who can score in bunches. At the same time, so is Vancouver and while they are not as young, they have proven they can fill the stat sheet given their 7-2 victory over the Kings in the previous round and also, the fact Henrik Sedin lead the league in points this year. But don’t tell the Blackhawks this, because they won’t have any of it. Yeah, in their losses against the Preds, they lost both games 4-1, but in games two and four, goalie Antti Niemi posted shut-outs in both victories showing Chicago he can get it done in the playoffs. Can he consistently though is the question. Game five, if you didn’t see it was one hell of a game as Chicago took at 3-1 lead before Nashville stormed back to take the 4-3 advantage. With under a minute to play and short-handed due to Marian Hossa’s five-minute major for boarding, Patrick Kane tied it up with 13 seconds remaining and as Hossa’s penalty expired in overtime, he jumped out of the box, found the puck and put it into the net sending United Centre into Pandemonium. In game six, they took advantage of the Predators horrific power play yet again (they finally scored though going one of five) and took the game with a final score of 5-3 setting up the match-up with the Canucks.
While I’ve been a little hard on the Blackhawks for how they’ve played, they did win the games that mattered and moved onto the Western Conference semi-finals. Many people were putting question marks all around Antti Niemi name but so far through-out the playoffs, he has had a better save percentage, as well as goals against average than Roberto Luongo. What should also be noted, is that each teams opponent in round one were completely different and the Kings during the regular season not only scored more goals than Nashville but had less scored against them. The reason I bring this up is because the Predators are not in the same league offensively as Vancouver and Los Angeles and if Chicago doesn’t step up their game offensively, way to much weight is going to be put on the inexperienced Niemi shoulders and ultimately, he will crumble. It can all be avoided if players such as Kane, Toews, Hossa and Sharp continue their offensive dominance and the Blackhawks defence plays solid in front of Niemi to build his confidence. With the six defensemen of Keith, Seabrook, Campbell, Hjalmarsson, Byfuglien and Sopel, building up the confidence of Niemi should be easy but when you look across from you and the most hockey-compatible brothers in the history of the game racking up points with their fellow teammates, it’s going to take more than just solid defence. Youngers Toews and Kane, veterans Hossa and Sharp, and the entire third and fourth lines need to step it up a notch… only because it’s a lot more intimidating facing Luongo, than it is Pekka Rinne (Predators goalie for those who don’t know who he is).
The Vancouver Canucks played solid hockey all season long and for the first four games of the round one series against the Los Angeles Kings, the Canucks were looking as if an early exit from the playoffs was possible, leaving Canada’s best hope to bring home Lord Stanley gone for yet again another year. Than game five came along and the Canucks looked like the team that all of British Columbia and Western Canada has grown to love with a 7-2 thrashing of what is a very young and talented Kings squad. After game one was taken by the Canucks in overtime, game two was taken with the exact same score (3-2) in overtime as well but this time by the Kings. Just as it was looking like it could be a long drawn out series, the Kings looked confident taking game three at home and made Vancouver realize that Los Angeles are for real, and if the Canucks want to move past them, they are going to have to play extremely good hockey. Well, Vancouver responded how any good team responds to adversity with three straight wins, first a 6-4 win on the road, followed by the 7-2 thrashing back in Vancouver and rode the momentum and won 4-2 in a comeback victory in game six (it was Vancouver’s 13th third period comeback of the season).
Roberto Luongo hadn’t exactly been himself at the end of the regular season and it carried into the early part of round one but he improved, so watch out because the Vancouver Canucks are clicking on all other cylinders. With Luongo playing well, they may just win the Stanley Cup. It is personally no concern to me that Niemi has had better stats than Luongo thus far and if you don’t know the reason…. shame on you… But i’ll put it bluntly. Niemi prior to the playoffs had played 42 career NHL games. Luongo has 612 regular season games and 22 playoff games. Roberto Luongo not only has played 1/2 as many playoff games as Niemi has regular season NHL games but he also did something Niemi has never done, which is carry a team to a championship. This past February, Luongo (with the help of Sidney Crosby to say the least), helped Team Canada win the Olympics on home soil. The experience that Luongo gained from that encounter can never, ever be replicated… it was one game, do or die and it went into overtime. Niemi has never, and may never in his career face something that daunting and to be quite frank, what he is about to face in this Vancouver Canucks squad, will be the biggest step in his NHL career. If Niemi is slightly off his game, Vancouver has a huge chance of moving onto the Western Conference Finals against either whoever wins the other series. If the Canucks can continue to get production offensively out of the Sedin’s (count on it), Samuelsson, Kesler and players like Burrows and Wellwood can step it up a bit, then add in solid defensive play from Salo, O’Brien, Ernhoff and others, with Luongo in net… and you’ve got a recipe that will knock everyone in the windy-city on their asses.
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