Western semi-finals breakdowns
Playing hard and disciplined will be key in the Hawks-Canucks series
There is little love lost between the last two Stanley Cup champions
Jonas Hiller (Ducks) and Chris Osgood (Wings) face much stiffer tests
Chicago Blackhawks (4) vs. Vancouver Canucks (3)
Regular season series: Teams split, 2-2
The Skinny: Memo to the training staffs in Chicago and Vancouver: Start loading up on ice packs and sutures. Based on the personnel -- and a fight-filled series finale back in February -- this stacks up as the most physical match-up of the postseason.
Sure the Hawks advanced for the first time in 13 years thanks to three scoring lines and outstanding netminding from Nikolai Khabibulin, but it was an aggressive forecheck led by Dustin Byfuglien and Adam Burish, and some nasty physical work on the back end that set the table for their success against the Flames. The story was similar in Vancouver, where Roberto Luongo was nearly unbeatable (1.15 GAA in the sweep of St. Louis) and three lines chipped in offensively, but it was the physical play of Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa that kept the Blues on their heels. The formula to advance to the Western Conference Final seems clear: with bodies flying in all directions, the team that applies its brawn most judiciously should dictate the outcome.
Both teams enter this series feeling good about their chances, but only the Canucks come in without any doubts. They were methodical in exposing the tomato-can defense of a Blues squad that was viewed by many as a favorite to pull the annual playoff upset.
The Hawks, on the other hand, shouldn't have required six games to topple a Calgary team that was decimated by injuries, lacked cohesion on the ice and trotted out a power play that may have been the league's least imposing. They certainly should not have been out shot 44-16 in a potential close-out game.
That's not to say the Hawks can be taken lightly. Although much attention will be focused on a top six that features Jonathan Toews (playing world-class hockey despite a limited workload that hints at a possible injury), Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp, it was the third line of Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and Sami Pahlsson that was the team's most consistently effective. The Hawks also boast a blueline that has considerable snarl and a greater facility at moving the puck than what Vancouver faced in St. Louis.
Experience didn't provide an edge for the Flames, but it should for the Canucks. The Sedins looked more battle-ready against the Blues than in previous postseasons, and defenders like Bieksa, Willie Mitchell, Mattias Ohlund and Shane O'Brien have chests full of playoff merit badges. They won't be intimidated by Chicago's speed and guile.
Spotlight's On: Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. If Chicago's dynamic defensive duo wasn't widely recognized as legitimate Team Canada candidates before the Calgary series, it is now. They used strength and uncanny stickwork to keep Jarome Iginla and company at bay, particularly in the final two games. They'll face a slicker challenge from the Sedins-Burrows unit that will require exquisite positioning as well as some artfully applied muscle.
X-Factor for Blackhawks: Cristobal Huet. Khabibulin got the job done against the Flames, but he's had his problems against the Canucks, giving up 11 goals in his last two outings. Huet, by comparison, was in net for both Chicago wins earlier in the season and allowed just three. The Bulin Wall has earned the right to be the go-to guy, but if he struggles in the first two games, Huet could get the call from the bullpen.
X-Factor for Canucks: The penalty kill. It was easy to miss the fact that the Canucks were the second-most penalized team in the first round. A PK unit that goes 23-of-24 has a way of glossing over Nelson Muntz-esque disciplinary issues. But if the Canucks plan to continue playing on the edge, they'll find the Hawks have more weapons at their disposal with the extra man. Expect this unit to be tested often.
The Pick: Luongo continues to build his case as the best goalie in the world Canucks in six.
Anaheim Ducks (8) vs. Detroit Red Wings (2)
Regular season series: Detroit won 3-0-1
The Skinny: The thing about Detroit is that while every team views the Red Wings as a rival, they really have few natural enemies. The Ducks, however, may be one of them. This battle between the past two Stanley Cup-winners will be their third playoff engagement in five seasons. Anaheim eliminated the Wings in the two prior meetings, including the 2007 Western Conference Finals. If that zesty six-game affair didn't bring on an instant case of the hates, it should be in full bloom about 10 minutes after the puck drops in Game 1.
The Wings had little trouble handling the Ducks during the regular season, but Anaheim has undergone significant changes since they last met in late-February, especially on the blueline. Though Scott Niedermayer or Chris Pronger will always be on the ice, the additions of Ryan Whitney and James Wisniewski along with the return of Francois Beauchemin gives Anaheim the depth and physical presence to mitigate Detroit's wealth of offensive options. As a group, they'll define whatever success Anaheim has in the series.
The champs' lineup may not boast any surprises, but it will pose a decidedly different challenge to what Anaheim faced in San Jose. Unlike the milquetoast Sharks, the Wings are a battle-hardened, playoff-proven bunch with the ability to raise their intensity as the pot grows larger. The skill is there in Pavel Datsyuk (seven regular-season points against the Ducks) Marian Hossa and Henrik Zetterberg, but it will be the trench warfare conducted by Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom and Dan Cleary that challenges the ability of Jonas Hiller to replicate his first-round heroics. The young stopper was key to one upset. He'll find it considerably more difficult to pull off a second one.
Spotlight's On: Anaheim's special teams. The Ducks' 10-2-1 finish to the regular season was built on a power play that clicked on nearly 42 percent of its chances. That rate cooled considerably against the Sharks, but the Ducks continued to use the man advantage to score goals at key moments. They'll need to continue to make hay against a readily exploitable Wings penalty kill. After offering up little resistance during the regular season (25th overall), it was even worse against Columbus' popgun power play. Of course, Detroit can balance that weakness with the league's top power play unit. The Ducks will need to focus on their discipline to avoid putting too much pressure on their own mediocre PK unit.
X-Factor for Red Wings: Chris Osgood. Just the other day I wrote that Osgood deserved some slack after leading Detroit to a sweep of the Blue Jackets. That slack ends here. That 1.75 GAA and .936 save percentage he earned against Columbus looks swell on paper, but the Ducks provide a more vigorous set of challenges, including a group of forwards -- led by the big-bodied first unit of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan -- that will consistently blitz his crease. Osgood will be counted on to play a larger role in this series.
X-Factor for Ducks: Teemu Selanne. The play of Hiller and the top line masked the inefficacy of Anaheim's secondary scoring in the San Jose series. Selanne and Andrew Ebbett displayed some genuine chemistry, generating quality chances in each of the six games, but too few ended up behind Evgeni Nabokov. If the Ducks hope to advance, Selanne -- who had just one goal against San Jose -- needs to show some of that old finishing touch.
The Pick: Detroit smells blood -- and that old silver mug -- in the water now that the top-ranked Sharks have been cast aside. Red Wings in six.
Click here for analysis and forecasts by Sarah Kwak.
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