Hawks-Sharks preview

So it’s one versus two after all.

The top two teams in the Western Conference all year long will finally faceoff for the right to play for the Stanley Cup.

The Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks separated themselves from the rest of the pack early in the season and that hard work paid off for both teams, in the form of series victories in the conference quarter and semifinals.

“I’ve been watching them play throughout the playoffs," Patrick Sharp said. "They are playing inspired hockey. They’re a tough team. It’s going to be a tough series. We are looking forward to it. We’ll do some preparation this week but we’re happy to be back in the conference finals."

If the season series between the teams means anything, the Hawks look to have an edge against the Sharks.

Chicago beat San Jose three out of four games, including a 7-2 signature win on the road in late November. It came in the eighth and final game of a winning streak and happened to be Marian Hossa’s Hawks debut. Hossa scored two goals as the Hawks got out to a 7-0 lead. Three of the goals were scored shorthanded.

“It is huge,” Hossa said at the time. “They are one of the top teams in the NHL. This was a great test for us and we proved we can play with anybody.”

It was a big confidence boost for the Hawks, who were still establishing themselves as an elite team. Then, in late January, the Hawks returned to San Jose and beat the Sharks again, in overtime, 4-3. Before that game Sharks coach Todd McLellan said his team had to “be quicker” against Chicago. Apparently, they weren’t, and the Hawks got out to a 3-0 lead before having to play the overtime period to secure the two points. That game was the seventh of an eight game road trip while the Sharks were in the midst of a home stand and were well rested.

“We won a couple games in San Jose this season," Troy Brouwer said. "We play a good tight road game and try not to give up too many opportunities so for us, starting on the road might be a good thing.”

In between those wins the Hawks dropped a 3-2 affair to the Sharks in late December at the United Center. Even in the loss, the Hawks dominated the affair. Their shot differential, 47-14, was indicative of the play on the ice. The difference was in net where Cristobal Huet made just 11 saves while Evgeni Nabakov made 45. One of those goaltenders won’t be playing in the conference finals.

Both teams are loaded with Olympians. The Sharks top line all season, Joe Thorton, Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley along with defenseman Dan Boyle won gold for Canada with three Hawk players. Speedy center Joe Pavelski played with Patrick Kane on the U.S.A. team while three other Sharks played in the Winter Games as well.

“They’re a tough team that's fast and physical," Jonathan Toews said. "I think they’re as confident as ever as a team. We need to be prepared from Game 1.”

Pavelski is the emerging face of the franchise. The competitive, skilled spark plug leads San Jose in scoring, in the playoffs, with 15 points. His rise to elite status adds another weapon for a team fully loaded.

Having said that, the difference in the series might come down to what McLellan said before their regular-season finale. The Hawks are simply quicker than the Sharks and until now, there wasn’t very much San Jose could do about it. A team can’t just will itself to be quicker and if quicker decisions is the answer, that can lead to mistakes.

There will be another layer of intrigue to this series. A recent Sports Illustrated players poll ranked the HP Pavilion, where the Sharks play, and the United Center, one and three in the NHL, respectively, as toughest places to play in the league. Road teams have had plenty of success in the playoffs this season, but will it continue in two of the toughest venues in the league?

The Sharks have been one of the league's bigger teams for years. More physical teams used to give the Hawks problems. If the season series is any indication, however, quickness trumps size. Dustin Byfuglien may not be the force he was against Vancouver but a player like Kane or even Kris Versteeg should thrive.

It’s that quickness that makes the difference in the series. Hawks win in five or six games.