Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Blackhawks Advance to Face Off with Detroit

What a way to mark the end of the Western Conference rivalry between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. Much has been made about the moronic decision by the NHL to take the Red Wings out of the Western Conference beginning next year; one of the best rivalries in the sport will be relegated to a few games here and there every season, greatly diminishing the intra-division matchups we've come to expect from the two marquee, Original Six clubs. So this playoff matchup, one that would already be rife with excitement, is magnified by the fact that if the Red Wings and Hawks ever meet in the playoffs again after this year, it will only be in the Stanley Cup Finals. What a series this could be.

The Hawks, after a relatively smooth first round against Minnesota, advance to face a Detroit team that needed a Game 7 to advance from their previous round. Minnesota presented an interesting matchup for the Hawks in that they tried to alter the Hawks' strengths to sneak out a series win. The Wild, much like St. Louis does, tried to force the Blackhawks into a grinding, physical series that would suit Minnesota more than the up and down puck possession style of the Hawks. For the majority of the series, it didn't work, but there were certainly moments where the Hawks were off their game and the physical nature of the Wild's play threw off the Hawks forecheck, especially on the power play. The Hawks ultimately ended up losing only one game in the series, in large part because of the play of Corey Crawford.

Crawford was at the forefront against Minnesota
The much-maligned netminder entered the playoffs as the defacto starter (if he wasn't before) because of Ray Emery's injury. This actually ended up solving Joel Quenneville's goalie controversy (which was really a media creation to begin with) without Quenneville having to make a difficult decision. Regardless, Crawford has taken the opportunity and ran with it. Even though the Hawks struggled to score in the first round, especially including Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, they were able to win 4 out of 5 because of stellar play from Crawford. Corey, continuing his play from an outstanding regular season, put up a 1.32 GAA for the entire series, including a shut out and two games with only 1 goal allowed. Considering the difficulties of the Hawks' top line to score, and their continuing woes on the power play, Crawford, more than any other player, is the reason they advanced so relatively easily.

I have a feeling, even though the Red Wings are a low seed, that this round won't be so easy. Detroit is having a down year, but they still possess outstanding front line players and more importantly, they're a Hawks rival. I know a lot of analysts feel this is potentially an even better matchup for the Hawks than the Wild were, and is almost certainly a better matchup than getting red hot San Jose, but let's not forget the veteran skill of players like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. The two have led this team into the playoffs for years and were Detroit's key to a win in a long series against Anaheim. They're highly skilled and can create scoring chances on their own accord in a similar fashion to the Hawks. Crawford will need to continue his solid play and stay disciplined and focused against the top of the Red Wing's offense.

Datsyuk & Zetterberg
At the same time, however, the Red Wings play into the Hawks' hands in terms of how they play. The Red Wings, like the Hawks, are not an overly physical team but instead try to use speed, athleticism, and puck possession to win games. Teams like this rely on the forecheck to create extra scoring opportunities for their top players, so defensemen like Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjarmalsson, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya, Nick Leddy, along with superior two-way forwards like Toews, Hossa, Sharp, and Bolland will need to make sure to effectively backcheck and disrupt the Red Wing's offensive zone.

If the Hawks get their top line and power play rolling, there might not be anything Detroit can do to stop it. This isn't the same Detroit team as in recent years, and even more than that, this Hawks team strongly resembles the Cup team of 2010 that played superb hockey throughout that postseason. I never want to be too overconfident against major rivals, but the Hawks can beat you in so many ways and play such balanced hockey that they can win night in and night out without even playing their best hockey. I think Toews and Kane will return to their normal production levels and join the resurgent Patrick Sharp. If the Hawks are scoring and taking advantage of a strong forecheck, they also won't be too reliant on Crawford to compensate.

It'll be interesting to see if the long layoff will hurt the Hawks or help them. I'm always skeptical of teams that finish off a playoff round early because it disrupts any sort of vital momentum the team has in the playoffs. Detroit, on the other hand, just fought through a tough playoff series, finishing their Game 7 on Sunday. They should be in prime position to keep playing come tomorrow night. Granted, the layoff the Hawks had in 2010 after sweeping San Jose in the Western Conference Finals didn't prevent them from beating Philadelphia to win the Cup in the next round. In these situations, it really comes down to leadership. Can the veterans on the Hawks, who know how to handle a playoff series, make sure that this team is up and ready to play? Will Joel Quenneville hold strong with his lines or panic if the Hawks don't start off strong? Those are crucial questions that I think could have a big impact on the series, at least in the beginning.

When it comes down to it, though, this is a series that the Hawks should, and can, win. They have the talent. They've been the best team in the league the entire season. Their goaltenders have performed brilliantly both throughout the regular season and now into the playoffs. The team is mostly healthy, and seems to be playing relatively consistently. Now, they have the opportunity to get the last laugh in the last time these two fierce rivals will play each other as conference foes. It's up to the Hawks and the coaches to execute their game plan and move on to the next round. As these last few nights around the NHL can attest, it's hard to top the Stanley Cup playoffs anywhere in sports. Nowhere is this more true than between two of the sport's biggest rivals. The United Center will be raucous and the players will be fired up. Can't wait for it to start.