Let me count the ways...
Patrick Sharp. Since returning from injury, he has given the team a couple of huge lifts, most recently during the dark days midway through game 2 in Vancouver, trailing 2-0 in the game and in danger of going down 2-0 in the series. Bang, bang, tie game, off to the races.
A year ago, he was the sniper on the Toews/Kane line and led the team with 36 goals. This season, despite missing 20 games and being moved around on offense all year, he netted another 26. During the playoffs, Qs most inspired move has been to put Sharp (at 27, a grizzled veteran on this team) with Burish and Eager, on the supposed fourth line.
Which is sick. Arguably, these are the three best hustlers on the team. Among key skill players (Sharp, Havlat, Toews, Kane) Sharp is far and away the most physical, and the kids are flying and banging out there with him. With Sharp developing into an all-around playmaker, look for Burish’s offense to continue to improve.
Martin Havlat. Another veteran (28) who has grown into a complete player this year. Part of the only stable line all year (with Bolland and Ladd), these guys have been tasked with shutting down the opposition’s top line, which they have done all year, as you can tell from their ridiculous combined +74 during the regular season.
It wasn’t all shut down either. The three combined for 63 goals this year and another 11 in the playoffs. Havlat has been a beautiful playmaker and cold-blooded sniper (Calgary game 1, Vancouver game 4), but I’m most impressed with his backchecking and (yes) physical play alongside Bolland and Ladd on this big, tough, and productive line.
Toews, Kane, and Brouwer: If Toews has been a bit banged up but is now feeling better, look out. And Kane, in danger of picking up a "soft" tag, responded emphatically in the Vancouver series. Until Toews fills out, this line will need a bruiser like Brouwer. During the year, Q shook this line up, sometimes breaking up Toews and Kane, sometimes having Byfuglien, Versteeg, or Sharp join them. Sharp has a home now, but don’t be surprised if Byfuglien or Versteeg skate with the kids at some point if the offense lags.
Byfuglien, Pahlsson, and Versteeg. Still waiting to see what the big fuss over Pahlsson is. The latest is that he has a history of giving Detroit forwards fits. We shall see, but as of right now, he’s near the bottom of the Hawks list of forwards. Versteeg and Byfuglien just add to the sick offensive depth. Both can improvise and create their own space and chances. Buff’s a big body in front with a rocket shot from the circle, though he sometimes, mysteriously, disappears, and Versteeg is another great hustler/flyer/banger with offensive skills to boot, though he is prone to the occasional rookie mistake.
Keith and Seabrook. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit to a case of man-love for Duncan Keith. Along with Toews and Havlat, our MVP all year. His speed, vision, decision-making, passing, and defensive positioning are all about the best in the world, and when he’s on the ice, I got this warm fuzzy feeling, like I’m wrapped up in a blanket and Mom’s bringing me a mug of cocoa.
The Vancouver series may have been his worst stretch of the season, though his pass to Bolland for the shortie broke a couple Canuck vertebrae. He’s still +4 for the playoffs (+33 during the season), and he will benefit more than anyone from the six-day layoff. As a student of the game, Dunc will also come out with a trick or two up his sleeve against Scum. If only the guy could score (robbed a couple times by Luongo!)
Seabrook has been our best post-season defenseman, after having a great year. More the bone-crushing prototype with a rocket from the point, he has improved his passing and own zone decision-making immensely this year. Obviously, he’s learned from Keith.
I wouldn’t swap this duo for any other pair anywhere.
Brian Campbell. So, that’s what the $7 million was for. Leads the time with +5 in the playoffs, the guy has definitely turned it up a notch and shut up the critics for now. Instead of being a half-step behind the play, he’s breaking things up, taking hits like a man in order to make plays (was Vancouver running at him?) The last couple weeks must be awfully satisfying for Campbell, who should continue to deliver at both ends of the ice.
…and the rest. Barker has come back to earth after his offensive outburst against Calgary. The guy could still be great, but not this year. Hjalmarrsson, another kid, shows great potential, but made some worrying youthful mistakes against Vancouver. Still, Nick is the strongest defenseman of the three. Walker was more important to the team early in the year when everyone thought we’d be out-hit. Great fight in Vancouver series, but c’mon, the guy is too slow and has zero offensive punch. Anyone got Aaron Johnson’s number?
Khabibulin. Not a great year, not a great playoff so far, but the clear choice over Huet. Had the Hawks been successful in unloading Khabi last summer, they might not be here right now. Besides, look at how the mighty goalies have fallen. Brodeur, Luongo, Thomas. And those hot shot kids, like Hiller and Varlomov. Who’s standing? Osgood, Fleury, and Ward. Good, but not great, just like our guy.
It’s time for me to get behind the Bulin wall. The guy knows how to win a cup. If he bombs, the Hawks are in trouble. If he continues his current play, they have as good a shot as anyone. If he has his best two weeks of the year, they roll.
Four solid, relentless lines, three absolutely first-rate defensemen, young legs everywhere, skill, speed, checking, proven, veteran goaltending. Both series so far were 2-2 before the Hawks put things to bed. They get stronger as each game and each series progresses. They have a great chance to steal one of the first two games in Detroit and, if they do, they oughtta win this series. If they knock off Detroit, nothing Pittsburgh or Carolina throws at ‘em could be a surprise.