<
>

Second-round preview: Hawks-Wings

The last time Original Six rivals the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks met in the playoffs was in the 2009 Western Conference finals, with the Blackhawks the young bucks still figuring things out and the Red Wings the veteran contenders en route to another Stanley Cup finals.

How things have changed.

The Blackhawks were Cup champions in 2010, but the Wings have since fallen off their elite pedestal a bit, falling to San Jose in the second round in 2011 and in the first round to Nashville last season.

However, the No. 7-seeded Wings showed in their first-round upset of No. 2-seeded Anaheim that they still have the heart of a champion, with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk stepping up big time to further cement their reputations as clutch playoff performers.

The top-seeded Hawks swept the regular-season series with Detroit, although three of the games needed extra time. It's compelling when these two rivals meet, and this series should be no different.

1. How taxed are the Red Wings?
Detroit needed seven grueling games while traveling across three time zones to get past the Ducks. What's left in the tank?

The Blackhawks, meanwhile, stayed in the same time zone while dispatching Minnesota in a tidy five-game set. They obviously have the fresher legs entering this series, and that factor can't be ignored.

2. The goalies have responded
It seems Chicago's Corey Crawford and Detroit's Jimmy Howard are always having to prove themselves to everybody.

Both were solid in the opening round. Howard stopped 204 of 224 shots faced (.911 save percentage), and a couple of those goals came on crazy deflections off teammates. He especially raised his game under more pressure in Games 6 and 7 with his team's season on the line.

Crawford, who won all four regular-season games versus Detroit, stopped 132 of 139 shots in the first round for a .950 save percentage. He looked very confident, but it should be noted that the Wild's offense isn't exactly the most dangerous outfit in the league.

Still, for Crawford, it was a first career playoff series victory, and that's an important notch on his belt.

3. Datsyuk and Zetterberg revving up
The extra gear Datsyuk and Zetterberg found in the final two games against the Ducks was the difference in the series.

The two world-class stars showed their championship acumen by stepping it up with Detroit down 3-2 in the series. That's a gear the Ducks' top players never found.

What's different in this second-round series is that you know Chicago captain Jonathan Toews will answer the bell in kind, as will teammates Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa. They're as clutch as they come.

But the Zetterberg-Datsyuk duo will be the absolute point of focus for the Hawks. It's a step up from anything the Wild could throw at them in the previous round.

Wings head coach Mike Babcock had his two stars on the same line for the first six games of the Anaheim series but split them up for Game 7, a move that helped the Wings jump out to an early lead in that game.

How Babcock decides to deploy Datsyuk and Zetterberg against the Hawks will be a storyline throughout the series, given the weapons Chicago has.

4. Sharp has been sharp
The most overlooked star on the Blackhawks has been forward Patrick Sharp. He simply does his thing without much fanfare. However, it's hard to ignore his team-leading five goals in the opening round.

Although Toews and Kane played well, they didn't score in the opening round. Sharp was the man filling the net, and as always, that's why the Blackhawks are so difficult to match up against.

While the Hawks likely feel reasonably confident they can win games if they stop Datsyuk and Zetterberg, Chicago can find other ways to beat the Wings if Toews and Kane have off nights.

The Hawks are deeper up front, and Sharp is an important aspect of that depth. He's a consistent performer and raises his game come playoff time.

5. Interesting coaching matchup
Detroit's Babcock and Chicago's Joel Quenneville are two of the game's brightest minds, both with Stanley Cup rings to their credit.

It will be fascinating to watch the chess match between the coaches in terms of matchups, but also the manner in which each will deal with the media and try to get his messages across from game to game.

Both coaches preach and believe in a positive brand of hockey, and their styles are fun to watch.

• I just think the Wings emptied the tank while upsetting the Ducks. Frankly, it's remarkable what they've already accomplished this year, given the losses of defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom and Brad Stuart from last season, and this season's patchwork blue line. Chicago is just too deep and too talented. Blackhawks in 6.