Let’s take an early look at the Western Conference semifinal series between the Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks:
Offense: Vancouver had the most potent attack in the Western Conference, but the Blackhawks weren’t far behind. Both teams have secondary scoring, but it didn’t surface as much for the Hawks in Round 1 as it will need to in Round 2. Players like Kris Versteeg and even Troy Brouwer might find the open ice against Vancouver a relief compared to Nashville’s stifling play, especially in games 1-4 of the opening round. There might not be a better top line in the conference than the Sedin twins along with Alex Burrows. And don’t forget about Pavol Demitra and Mikael Samuelsson. Samuelsson leads the NHL in goals in the postseason with seven. Edge: Canucks.
Defense: While Vancouver’s penalty killing was really bad in Round 1, its five-on-five defensive numbers were outstanding. As a result, the Canucks did not have a single player with a minus rating. That wasn’t the case for the Hawks who also blew two third-period leads at home, though they came back to win one of those games. While the Hawks’ secondary defensemen had a fine opening series, they will take a step up in class when they face a deeper and more potent Vancouver team. Plus, Vancouver sports Selke finalist Ryan Kesler, while the Hawks employ Norris nominee Duncan Keith. The Hawks have more stars on defense, but Vancouver is under rated. Edge: Even.
Special Teams: When it comes to special teams, it’s not what you did in November, it’s what have you done lately. Sometimes statistics do tell the story. The Hawks penalty killing, in the quarterfinals, compared to the Canucks was night and day. Some of that may have had to do with the opponent, but the numbers are glaring. Vancouver gave up 10 power play goals while the Hawks yielded one in the same amount of chances for their respective opponent -- 26. If the Hawks power play can score at a 40 percent clip as the Kings did, they will put up some huge numbers. While some may have wanted more from the Hawks power play in Round 1, four goals in six games isn’t a bad number. Throw in the huge shorthanded tally to tie Game 5, and the fact that the Hawks led the league in shorties. Edge: Blackhawks.
Goaltending: Reputation can only take you so far. If goalies have to be your best penalty killers, then based on Round 1, there is no comparison. The numbers are well documented. The Hawks were the best in that category, the Canucks were the worst. If Antti Niemi had any postseason jitters, he’s well past them by now. Arguably, the Hawks’ most consistent player in Round 1, he’ll be tested by a potent Vancouver offense, but nothing he’s done says he can’t do the job. Roberto Luongo may have won gold, but he hasn’t been as good since those Olympics. Edge: Blackhawks.
Coaching: If this were a couple years ago, the edge would easily lean towards Joel Quenneville. Until then, Alain Vigneault had never finished higher than fourth in his division. He’s done a masterful job getting the most out of his team. Henrik Sedin is an MVP candidate, and Ryan Kesler has gotten even better under Vigneault. The Canucks have more toughness than they did a couple of years ago, and remember, they had to navigate a 14-game road trip in the regular season because of the Olympics. Coaching in a hockey hotbed is no easy task. Quenneville is steady as they go. Just when the Hawks needed it in Round 1, he infused some energy in the lineup in the form of Bryan Bickell and Adam Burish. He also green-lighted Brian Campbell’s return. The Hawks are 3-0 since those changes. Putting Bickell on the top line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, instead of, say, a struggling Troy Brouwer, was a stroke of genius. Edge: Even
Early Prediction: While Vancouver has improved since last postseason, so have the Hawks. And the halo is off Roberto Luongo. The Hawks will find the style of play much more to their liking than in Round 1, and while the Sedin twins might win a game or two on their own, the Hawks have been able to keep them relatively quiet at times over the last two seasons. Prediction: The Hawks win in 6 or 7.