Western Conference Finals Preview: Chicago Blackhawks vs. San Jose Sharks

On Tuesday night, the Chicago Blackhawks punched their ticket to the Western Conference Finals where, despite all the parity in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, the top two teams in the West will faceoff.

The regular season series between the San Jose Sharks and Blackhawks was everything you would expect a series of games between two elite teams to be: tight, back-and-forth, and well played by both teams. Four games, two of which were decided in overtime, and now the teams will get seven more chances at each other to decide who represents the Western Conference in the Cup Finals.

In their first meeting of the year on Nov. 15, the Blackhawks won on a Brent Seabrook game-winner just 41 seconds into overtime. The Hawks won that game 4-3, with goals from Seabrook, Patrick Kane, John Madden and Brent Sopel. In that game, less than a minute into the second period, Ben Eager and Doug Murray fought and Cristobal Huet allowed the three San Jose goals on just 23 shots.

The second meeting of the season was memorable for Hawks and Sharks fans alike. It was the first game of Marian Hossa’s Blackhawks career on Nov. 25 in San Jose, and the Blackhawks ran all over the Sharks. The Blackhawks scored four goals in the first two periods, the first three of which were short-handed (including two on the same PK early in the second period) and Evgeni Nabokov was removed after just two periods. Hossa would score two goals in his Hawks debut and the Sharks would suffer an ugley 7-2 loss.

Lost in the offensive display in that game was an outstanding defensive effort from Niklas Hjalmarsson, who was credited with seven blocked shots. Duncan Keith was credited with three assists in that second game as well, as the Blackhawks poured it on.

The third game between the Sharks and Blackhawks was on Dec. 22, and was one of the most frustrating losses for the Blackhawks of the entire regular season. The Blackhawks outshot the Sharks 47-14 in the game, and trailed 2-0 heading into the third period. Kane cut the lead to 2-1 just over four minutes into the third period, but only 20 seconds after Kane’s goal Huet allowed a soft goal to Jason Demers that effectively killed the Hawks’ rally. Hossa added a late goal, but the Hawks couldn’t get over the hump with Nabokov all night.

The fourth and final meeting was very similar to the first between the top two teams in the West. In San Jose on Jan. 28, with first place in the conference hanging in the balance at the time, the Hawks sprinted to a 3-0 lead in the first ten minutes and then watched Huet give the Sharks one goal back in each of the three periods. The Sharks tied the game just under give minutes into the third period, and the Hawks were suddenly fighting. Troy Brouwer scored his second goal of the game 1:37 into overtime and the Blackhawks stole another 4-3 victory. Joe Pavelski also had two goals in the final contest.

Overall in the season series, the Blackhawks were led in scoring by Keith who, despite not scoring a goal against the Sharks, had seven points in the four games. Jonathan Toews was also held without a goal by the Sharks, but had four assists against San Jose. Hossa and Brouwer each had three goals and two assists, while Kane had two goals and three assists.

What will play an enormous role in this series, however, is the insertion of Antti Niemi in goal; Huet played every minute of all four games against San Jose and was, for the most part, pretty good. The Blackhawks outscored the Sharks 17-11 in the series this year, giving Huet a 2.85 goals against average with a .889 save percentage.

The high-powered offense of the Sharks was led by Pavelski, who had three goals and two assists against the Hawks this year. Dany Heatley, with two goals and three assists, also had five points in the four games, while Joe Thornton had four points on one goal and three assists. Nabokov ended up 1-1-2 with a 3.80 goals against average and a .903 save percentage against the Hawks this year.

One of the strengths for both teams this season has been their depth at center and skill in the faceoff circle. However, Dave Bolland played in only the first of the four games and the teams neutralized each other’s top centers throughout the four games; surprisingly, the top centers for the two teams against each other in the circle were John Madden (42/65 – 64.6 percent) for Chicago and Manny Malhotra (20/32 – 62.5 percent) for San Jose. Both Thornton and Patrick Sharp were 50 percent in the circle, and Toews, Pavelski and Patrick Marleau were all held under 50 percent in faceoffs in the series.

Other than the Hawks playing with a different goalie, the other intrigue in the series comes from the reality that a number of Sharks were teammates of a few Blackhawks for a couple weeks in February. Toews, Keith and Seabrook played with Thornton, Marleau, Heatley and Dan Boyle all played for Canada in the Winter Olympics, while Pavelski spent a good amount of time with Kane on the ice for the United States.

The book on the Sharks over the past few years has been that they fold under pressure, but their big guns started to show up late in their series against the Detroit Red Wings. “Little Joe” Pavelski has been the headliner for the Sharks in the postseason, racking up 15 points (nine goals, six assists) in just 11 games so far, but Thornton and Heatley both scored late in the Detroit series. Thornton has 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in 11 games, but is -6 in the postseason.

Coach Joel Quenneville did a magnificent job matching up Keith and Seabrook against the top line in the Vancouver series, and effectively shut down Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Mikael Samuelsson in the series. What will present the great chess match of the conference finals will be how Quenneville matches up against the Sharks top line of Thornton-Heatley-Marleau considering San Jose’s top playoff scorer, Pavelski, is on a different line. The Hawks will need continued strong play from Brian Campbell and Hjalmarsson in the series to keep the potent Sharks scoring in check.

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