With an Opening Round that evolved into a circus of excitement – nearly a quarter of the contests were resolved in overtime, both the eighth and seventh seed in the East upset the top ranked squads, All-star goalies underachieved while no name net minders overachieved – it is wishful thinking to hope for the same in the coming round.
Nevertheless, the NHL and its surrounding audience are ready for more blood, sweat and tears come Thursday night’s puck-drop at the Shark Tank in San Jose. The 9:00 EST faceoff will officially begin the Conference Semi-Finals.
It is not the Red Wings-Sharks match-up, however, that deserves the most attention as the other Western teams remaining have unfinished business to attend to. The Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks series poses the greatest rivalry out of the eight teams left in the pursuit for the Cup.
Their rivalry is not one that has deep tradition like the historic Toronto-Montreal enmity that has dozens of playoff series and geographical intimacy to show for. Instead, Chicago-Vancouver is a relatively recent rivalry that has provided unheralded intensity over their last ten meetings.
The two teams found themselves playing each other in last year’s edition of the Western Conference Semi-Finals with Chicago emerging as victors in an 8-4 Game Six. Over the 2009-10 regular season the teams met four times, which results were an even split of the winnings. The common denominator between the last ten meetings between the aforementioned squads has been scoring; lots of scoring.
Besides an anomaly of a Chicago shutout on November 22, 2009, their last ten games have produced an average of 8.6 goals per game. When you combine that with a budding regular season tradition of interesting plot lines such as a Willie Mitchell clock cleaning hit on Jonathan Toews and a line brawl created by Dustin Byfuglien’s obvious goalie interference, penalty minutes, and in turn scoring, will likely remain on the incline.
On paper, Chicago is one of the most complete teams in all of the National Hockey League. Their foremost question mark entering the second season of 2009-10 was if their inexperienced goaltender, Antti Neimi, was up to the task of stealing games when his team needed it. The Finn silenced any naysayers by posting a 2.15 GAA with two shutouts in Chicago’s six-game clash with Nashville.
Ironically, coming into the post-season the Vancouver Canucks were assessing completely different areas of their roster with their franchise player and top goal stopper locked up until 2021-2022. Their decision to make such a lucrative agreement must be in the back of front office’s mind though as Roberto Luongo’s performances thus far in the pressure-filled playoffs have been less than stellar (2.92 GAA, .893 SV%).
The goaltenders likely won’t be the x-factors in the battle, although, as the potency of the two teams conflicting on a consistent basis is high. Some potential game breakers are Mason Raymond for Vancouver and Patrick Sharp for Chicago.
Raymond is an odd choice for a hero but the second round will be his time. The speedy 6’0″ forward is prepared to make a difference in the playoffs. His durability and willingness to be successful is demonstrated not only in his shift-to-shift effort but in his perfect attendance in Canuck regular season games this year. As the playoffs wear on Raymond will continually get better. With currently only one point in the playoffs, expect him to shine beginning Saturday.
Sharp on the other hand has had a tremendous start to the post-season with seven points in six games. His game winning tally in Game Four is nothing new for the 28 year-old that has 15 clinchers in his past three regular seasons. Quite simply, the Thunder Bay, Ontario native has a knack for timely snipes.
With that being said, an x-factor by the name of Sharp and solid goaltending coming from a young, confident Neimi that has nothing to lose, gives Chicago the edge going into the Second Round’s most animosity-fueled series.
John’s Opening Round prediction: Philadelphia in seven (result: Philadelphia in five)
John’s prediction: Chicago in six