Tomorrow night the puck drops on what is arguably going to be the best match-up in the Stanley Cup Conference Semi-Finals. There is surely no bigger rivalry among the semifinalists than the one that exists between the Blackhawks and the Canucks. The teams don't like each other, and with a bulk of the animosity coming off from games in the last two seasons, everything is fresh in everyone's minds.
I could write a whole post detailing all the transgressions the teams have against each other, but I'm sure you, our dear readers (yes, all three of you--hi, Mom!), are fully aware of all the elements. The line brawl. The hair pulling. Patrick Kane, "PP specialist". "Old man Willie." Byfuglien's ass getting intimately acquainted with Luongo's face. The hat trick. The tears. The hit on Toews. The "cowardly" Ladd and his Kesler takedown. "I'll see you in the playoffs."
And Saturday night? Western Conference Semi-Finals, Round 2. The Canucks are hungry for redemption and vengeance. The Blackhawks would like nothing more than to put them in their place. If you thought the first round was a heart-stopping roller coaster ride, then you better bring out the AEDs for this one.
Here's a quick preview so you know what we can expect from our second round opponents:
Although pulled in one of the games against LA, Roberto Luongo can be expected to backstop the Canucks throughout the series. Andrew Raycroft has been more than serviceable as a back-up, but this is Luongo's show through and through. Some Canucks faithful believe he's established himself as a big game winner since usurping the starting spot from Martin Brodeur and winning the gold medal for Canada in the Olympics. The problem with that is he didn't exactly steal the game for the Canadians then. His most excellent outing is Game 6 against the Kings, though he got pulled and laid a stinker in one of the games preceding that.
Other Canucks fans, of course, have come off the idea that Luongo needs to be at his best to take the Canucks far. Growing in popularity is the sentiment that the Canucks only need Luongo to be solid, not spectacular, and the Canucks' depth will do the rest. (Sounds a little familiar, don't you think?) So for all the talk about Byfuglien planting his ass firmly in Luongo's face, the focus of the series may be shifting from a single "savior" to a more distributed team effort.
That being said, I'm not entirely sure how Luongo's expected only to be solid with the defense corps the Canucks are dressing. With Mitchell shelved for concussion, Vancouver will be dressing a blue line that isn't as strong as the one the Blackhawks faced last year. The top pairing will be composed of Sami "Made of Glass" Salo and Alex "I guess I'm kinda okay" Edler. Christian Ehrhoff, who came from the Sharks, isn't bad for a 3rd defenseman either, but he's going to be paired up with Shane "Party at the Roxy" O'Brien, who fans of his own team have nicknamed SOB.
And then there's Andrew Alberts, who had something like 23 PIM in his first 2 games, but who we're supposed to expect to dress to get Byfuglien off his game. Because he's "big", even though Buff has about 30 pounds on him. We'll see, though. He'll be skating with Kevin Bieksa, whose minutes have dwindled since Edler stepped up.
However unimpressive the defense looks like, though, it would help to remember that the Blackhawks were stifled to a sad 5-1 score back in January, when the Canucks were without Mitchell, Salo, and Bieksa. A team that manages to play better than the sum of its parts is always a threat.
Where the Canucks also enjoy a modicum of depth is in their skaters. The top line of Twinkie 1 and Twinkie 2 with Mikael "Fuck you, Sweden" Samuelsson is lethal, and even against our top pair they have managed to break through in dangerous ways. Keith and Seabrook, along with whoever Quenneville is able to match against them, will have their work cut out for them just trying to contain Vancouver's top line. Twins and disgruntled Olympic snubs are creepy like that.
Ryan Kesler, meanwhile, will be centering the second line possibly with Mason "What's the opposite of name-dropping?" Raymond and Alexandre Burrows. They could be matched up against the Blackhawks' top line and at least Kesler will be working his two-way magic there.
After that, the Canucks get a little murkier. Kyle Wellwood is the team's third-line center, and he'll probably be skating with Bernier, who is enjoying a bit of a break-out season, and Pavol Demitra, who broke out during the Olympics and then returned to a life of mediocrity immediately after. Kinda like Superman, only it would have been nice if he saved his heroics for the Canucks instead of Team Slovakia. Rypien, Grabner, and Hansen are your likely fourth-liners, and here's where we hope the Blackhawks truly take advantage of the dropoff in talent, especially if Quenneville is sticking to a fourth line of Madden, Brouwer, and Byfuglien. Granted, Brouwer's play has dipped somewhat, but one would hope that it hasn't regressed beyond the skill level of the Canucks' fourth line.
In this series, the heroes could very well be the third- and fourth-liners, so let's hope the ice remains tilted in the Blackhawks' favor.
I'm not sure what to tell you about special teams--after the first round, I'm more convinced now that the strength or ineffeciency of power play and penalty kill units are maybe more influenced by match-ups than regular season statistics. The league's best PP clicked at a 1-for-33 rate against a Canadiens' team that seemed to adjust and respond well to the way the Capitals ran the power play, and something in the Kings' set-up allowed them to capitalize and capitalize aplenty on their chances against the Canucks--except, sadly, when it mattered most.
We know that last year the Blackhawks were able to make the Canucks pay for their bruising style of play by scoring on the man advantage, but against the Preds the Hawks' record was nothing to write home about. Hopefully the return of Campbell, and the personnel adjustments done during the last practice, will help remedy the holes in the Hawks' power play.
The Hawks' penalty kill, on the other hand, remains the one consistent aspect of the Hawks' play. The boys have allowed just 1 power play goal against in 27 chances, and while I don't expect them to maintain that record throughout this series, it would help if the Hawks are able to stay strong on the kill.
Many penalties are expected in this round, thus strong special teams could play a huge part in who advances in the next round, and who heads to the golf course in two weeks' time.
By game 3, NBC executives will wonder why they decided not to pick up this series for any of their broadcasts.