That time again, Chris Block from The Third Man In, The Fifth Feather, and myself:
Who is your player of the series against Vancouver?
Block: From a Hawks’ perspective, it’s undoubtedly Jonathan Toews. The Captain was every bit Roberto Luongo’s aggressor as Dustin Byfuglien was, minus the dumb penalties in Game 3 that quite easily could’ve flipped the series in an entirely different direction. The "Captain Serious" shtick is a tired act, but Toews’ fierce intensity led the way in all three road victories. All things considered though, the story of the series was Luongo. Dominant in the opener and Game 5 at the United Center, when he was on and kept his focus, the Hawks stood no chance. Even with an injury-depleted defense in front of him, Luongo still gave Nuck Nation reason to believe he could win the series with minimal help. But then someone gave Dustin Byfuglien purpose and Luongo became Dan Cloutier again. Even more distressing was Luongo’s resistance to accept any of the blame for the ousting post-series. Vancouver has more than a few problems, but their core has no spirit.
Feather: Though he sleepwalked through a couple games during the series - including the stink bomb that was Game 5 - Dustin Byfuglien's Game 3 was one for the ages. In fact, at the time, we called it the best game by any Blackhawk all season - and we still hadn't felt its full effects yet. Byfuglien's performance in Game 3 not only gave the Hawks a game lead in the series, it very directly led to Vancouver's Game 4 combustion, in which the Canucks took selfish turns at roughing Big Buff. The silly penalties led to a four-power-play-goal performance from the Hawks and ultimately a two-game lead in the series. After that, it wasn't if, but when.
Sam: Because I'm a contrarian, I won't go with Buff even though he turned it all on its head. I'll go with Kris Versteeg, who had huge goals in Games 2, 3, and 6, and generally skated his ass off in intelligent ways. That last fact alone pretty much caused me a stroke out of shock. With the improved play of his linemates, this gave the Hawks three lines that could hurt, and I don't think another team can boast that .
After two rounds, are you more or less of a believer in Antti Niemi?
Block: Niemi’s been bad. He’s been good. He’s flirted with great a period or two. What he hasn’t been to this point is Luongo Game 4 or 6 awful. The Sharks big line will make him look silly at times and we will get another brief glimpse of the Cristobal Huet Experience quickly ahead. It’s probably to Niemi’s advantage he didn’t see San Jose during the regular season. Huet was in net all four matches, and went 3-1 with two victories coming by way of the four-on-four overtime. The bottom line is Niemi has been no more or less efficient than Nikolai Khabibulin was last spring and he wasn’t the reason the Hawks were deflated by the Red Wings. If this continues, slightly above average will be good enough to give the Hawks’ offense enough rope win the series. That said, the Hawks don’t miss Khabibulin and from what we’ve seen so far, there’s no reason to bet the house on Niemi at the negotiating table this summer either.
Feather: It's been one of our themes all year, but goaltending is funny. We spent the better part of the first six months of the season trying to make Huet-believers out of Hawk fans - principally because we weren't quite sure whether we could trust the odd looking Finnish guy with ironing boards for leg pads sitting on the bench. But, in the end, the Hawks have one thing going for them: it's almost impossible to accurately predict goaltender performance in this league, and often times goalies who are rookies, relative unknowns and/or historically poor performers have as good a chance at succeeding in the playoffs as proven veterans. So, yeah, we're Antti Niemi believers.
Another thing every fan should do: watch other playoff games and critique the goaltenders' performance like they were your own goalie; you'll see that "soft" goals are actually fairly commonplace for even the league's strongest netminders.
Sam: Probably about the same, and as the Feather said, goaltending just hasn't been as important this season as it's the highest scoring postseason in 10 years (unless you're the bleu, blanc, and rouge of course). He still gives up a softie here and there, and he looks awkward as all hell. I fear the more talented Sharks shooters will be zeroing in on the areas above his hunched shoulders that only Christian Ehrhoff was able to find Vancouver. But he was strong when the Hawks needed him to be, and there's no reason to think he won't be now.
Looking ahead, what scares you most about the Sharks?
Block: If Jumbo Joe Thornton is finally tired of hearing criticisms and blame (and rightfully so) for San Jose’s playoff woes of recent years past, he can become a dangerous man. When Thornton chooses to play with purpose, he dominants stretches and sometimes games as he did in games 3 and 5 in the Detroit series. Though, to get past Chicago, he’ll need to find those types of efforts at least four times. Thornton typically plays well against the Hawks, while linemates Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley have run hot and cold against Chicago during their careers. If Thornton is on, those three can dominate and dictate the outcome here. Keith is susceptible to wingers with speed to the outside (he’s still spinning from the move Heatley put on him back on Dec 22nd) and Marleau has plenty of that. Simply put, if the Hawks can shut the Thornton line down, they’ll win the series. Sharp and Hossa SHOULD cancel out the Pavelski-Clowe-Setoguchi line and the Hawks’ third and fourth lines are superior to the Sharks’. The Thornton draw is an assignment for Toews. Bolland is too small, and as good as he was in the Vancouver series, Bolland and Versteeg should never be exceeding or equaling Toews, Kane and Hossa in total ice time. If that trend continues, we’ll for sure know what’s been in Q’s water bottle all this time.
Feather: Well, their top five players are scary, to say the least. Though Joe Thornton usually goes away this time of year, he's still 6'3" and one of the league's best centers; Patrick Marleau and Danny Heatley can flat out score; though Joe Pavelski looks exactly like Kris Verseeg when the two of them have beards on, he's writing himself a nice little playoff story; and Dan Boyle is one of the league's best defensemen. After that, things get a little thin for the Sha-arks, but it's certainly a nice start. It also means the Hawks will have match-up problems with someone - either Thornton or Pavelski - and defensemen not named (or nicknamed) Keith, Seabrook or Ham Sandwich will play meaningful minutes in their own end; they'll have to make the best of them.
Sam: Size. The Sharks Top-6 is massive. And the Hawks were retarded with teams pinning them behind their net against Nashville. This is the Sharks game. They love to dump it in and then work behind the net to create, and the smallish Hawks d-men are going to have to be awfully smart. But every time they try and move the puck quickly, some thing tends to go wrong, and against this team they cannot be turning it over in their own zone. That said, there's still an excellent chance that it's only Pavelski-Clowe-Setoguchi who cause these problems. Marleau and Speed Racer may be waiting for Thornton to hit them with a centering pass, while he's gone back to "waiting for my paycheck" playoff form we've come to know and love.
Prediction for the Conference Finals:
Block: Blackhawks in six. I see no reason to believe the trend of the Hawks being mentally unprepared and outcoached in a series’ opener changing. Jonathan Toews engineers a split out west and then the Hawks take a 3-1 series lead on their home ice in two games that will give you asthma if you don’t already have it. Sharks put forth their best effort and blow away the Hawks in Game 5 before the Hawks dispose of them and celebrate their first Stanley Cup Final in 18 years and second in 37 at the UC after Game 6. There will be no more than four arrests, but Q will be released the next morning without bond. And the Hawks and Habs will meet in the Finals, a rematch 37 years in the making and the two cities will vie for the title of most drunken chaos and destruction it can inflict on their own city and neighbors for no other reason than the outcome of a frivolous sports game. Chicago doesn’t stand a chance. I’d hope.
Feather: Last season, we all knew what was in store for the Hawks leading into the Conference Finals: they were going to lose. This year, it's a much different story. Sure, the Sharks were the Western Conference's best team during the regular season, but their playoff troubles are well chronicled; they also don't have the depth and playoff experience last years Wings' had. It feels very, very weird to say, but ... if it's not the Hawks in the Stanley Cup Finals, I'll be surprised. Let's take 'em in six.
Sam: Well, if the Hawks can keep Pavelski in his current form (1 assist in his last three), and shift the pressure to Jumbo Joe -- who'll be wearing Captain Marvel all series and probably won't like it, they win this. I think that's what probably happens I don't believe Nabokov can win you a series, and he's just as capable of Niemi of losing you a game along the way. The Sharks defense is much bigger and better than Vancouver's, the Hawks won't get a red carpet to the crease. But other than Boyle they're not the swiftest, either. Too much depth for the Hawks against a team that has a marvelous Top-6, but only grinders after that. Hawks in 6.
Finally. Bob and John, will you just admit you married each other this past weekend? And how much are you paying these poor women to be your beards?
Block: I don’t know much about John or Bob. Neither do I know the lure or hunger of another man’s flesh. However, I have been to one too many Second City Hockey Road Watches to know McClure cannot ever be trusted around duct tape, a pair of C-clamps, tiger balm and a sybian. Not a good scene.
Sam: It is 2010, and this is Chicago. If ever there was a time that a gay, hockey-blogging couple could be out of the closet, it's now. But I'd hate for those girls to lose what must be exorbitant salaries.
Feather: I don’t know much about John or Bob. Neither do I know the lure or hunger of another man’s flesh. However, I have been to one too many Second City Hockey Road Watches to know McClure cannot ever be trusted around duct tape, a pair of C-clamps, tiger balm and a sybian. Not a good scene.
Don't forget, Blog Watch for Game 1 at Bottom Lounge. Boy, I done told ya once.