West finals preview: Wings vs. Hawks
Detroit and Chicago take center stage, once again, four months after a massively successful Winter Classic at Wrigley Field.
The two rivals put on quite a show New Year's Day, but while fans marveled at the spectacle, the veteran Red Wings sent a subtle message to the up-and-coming Blackhawks: The Cup champs were still in charge.
Chicago entered that week riding a franchise-record nine-game winning streak and had a chance to catch the mighty Wings for first place in the division if it swept the home-and-home set Dec. 30 at Joe Louis Arena and Jan. 1 at Wrigley Field. Instead, the Red Wings woke up from their first-half coma and hammered the youngsters from Madison Street 4-0 and 6-4, the latter on a national stage, to open up a gap atop the Central Division that would never be threatened again.
It was also a reality check for the Hawks, who would say after the Winter Classic how much they had to learn to play at that level someday.
Ahem, looks as if some of those lessons were taken to heart. Chicago continued to grow as a team in the second half of the season and, despite its lack of playoff experience, knocked out Calgary and Vancouver en route to the Western Conference finals, which begin Sunday at Joe Louis Arena.
Now we'll see how far the Hawks have come when they match up again with the Wings for all the marbles in the conference.
Detroit won four of six games in the season series, the first two in shootouts, before dropping a meaningless home-and-home set to the Hawks to wrap up the regular season April 11-12.
It's the 15th playoff meeting between the Original Six rivals, with the Wings winning the last encounter, in the 1995 West finals.
1. Balanced scoring lines. Perhaps it's no coincidence at all, but the two teams that have ended up in the Western Conference finals just happen to have the most depth up front. Rolling four lines helped the Red Wings outlast the pesky, but eventually tired, Anaheim Ducks in the second round. Chicago got goals from all four lines in its six-game defeat of the Vancouver Canucks in the second round. That will set up an interesting chess game between coaches as they attempt to match up certain lines.
2. Puck-moving blueliners. Oh, here's another reason these two teams have ended up here. Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart, we'd like you to meet Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Cam Barker and Brian Campbell. Turns out they can head-man the puck, key the transition game and provide some offensive spark just as well as you.
3. Score first, young Hawks! Chicago coach Joel Quenneville got a little irritated that his youthful club kept falling behind early in the games against Vancouver. The Blackhawks scored the first goal only once in the six games with the Canucks but found ways to overcome those early-game deficits. That won't be as easy against a championship team like the Wings. Getting a lead will be important for the Hawks to keep their confidence, especially early in the series, and stick with their game plan.
4. Hey, kid. Hawks sophomore star Patrick Kane was 2 years old in October 1991, when six-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom played his first NHL game. Talk about polar opposites when it comes to the makeup of these teams in terms of age and playoff experience. The veteran Red Wings need duffel bags to carry around their Stanley Cup rings. This is all new for the Hawks. Chicago has been able to mitigate its inexperience through two rounds, but it now faces a team that has been there, done that, been there again and done it again. Chicago's poise under pressure will be greatly tested in this series.
5. Special teams. The Hawks and Wings are 1-2 in the power-play rankings through two rounds of the playoffs, with Chicago topping the league at an impressive 29.4 percent. That could be a dangerous thing for the Wings, whose penalty killing has struggled at times in these playoffs.
• Chicago: Martin Havlat is red-hot with six points (2-4) in his past five games, helping provide some of that offensive balance that makes Chicago so dangerous to defend against. Andrew Ladd had a huge overtime goal in the second round, but, overall, he has only three points (2-1) in 12 playoff games.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
2009 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
The conference finals are here. Scott Burnside, Pierre LeBrun and the rest of our NHL team preview the action: