Western Conference Semi-Finals Preview: Hawks-Wings

Tough to find a better rivalry in hockey than Hawks-Wings.

Four short years ago, the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings met for the 15th time ever in the NHL Playoffs. It was a battle between two very different teams: one with a vast amount of youth and inexperience for an organization that had made one playoff appearance in 10 years, and one with a stupid amount of experience and leadership for an organization that hadn’t missed the playoffs in 20 years (and counting).  Jonathan Toews had just turned 21; Patrick Kane wasn’t even 21. The older, savvier Red Wings unsurprisingly took it to the baby Blackhawks in five games en route to their fourth Stanley Cup trophy in 11 years.

A lot has happened since then. The Bears made the playoffs once and failed to reach the Super Bowl; the Bulls made the Eastern Conference Finals once and have been plagued with devastating injuries ever since; the Cubs and Sox have absolutely sucked; but the Blackhawks have been a model of consistency, having won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years the very next season and set an incredible 24-game point record just two months ago. Tomorrow night, the Blackhawks and Red Wings will take the ice together for Game 1 of arguably the greatest rivalry in professional hockey. However, unless these two teams cross paths some day in the Stanley Cup, they will never play each other again in the postseason, as Detroit makes its move to the Eastern Conference starting next October. So with that, let’s dive right into the nitty-gritty of what’s sure to be a physical and emotional second round playoff series.

Offense

If you were to tell me that the Blackhawks could win their first round playoff series, with ease, without both Jonathan Toews AND Patrick Kane scoring a single goal, I probably would’ve… well, I probably would’ve agreed, albeit very hesitantly, but that’s exactly what happened against Minnesota. The Blackhawks just have so much depth at forward and so many options that it’s nearly impossible for anyone in the Western Conference to match up with them. From Patrick Sharp to Marian Hossa to Brandon Saad to Andrew Shaw to Bryan Bickell to Michael Frolik, the list almost never ends. There is so much firepower and so much talent that opposing teams can’t choose to pick their poison with anyone – every single player on this team contributes. Sharp, Hossa and Bickell combined for 11 goals against the Wild, and Shaw, Frolik and Marcus Kruger all chipped in a goal. It’s no coincidence that Chicago swept the four game season series against Detroit this season – they’re simply over-matched. Hopefully, that success will continue starting tomorrow. And oh, by the way, some center named Dave Bolland, who happened to score eight goals and had 16 points during the 2010 run to the Stanley Cup, will be back from an injury and ready to go for Game 1.

The Bash Brother duo of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have displayed nothing but consistency over the past decade for Detroit. They may be older (34 and 32, respectively), and they may be slower, but one thing’s for damn sure: they know how to win. Neither one has ever missed the playoffs (both have been with Detroit for their entire careers), and they’ve only lost in the first round once in the last seven years. This season was obviously no different. Datsyuk and Zetterberg dominated the Ducks to the tune of 15 combined points and stepped up like the leaders that they are when it mattered most: Datysuk racked up three points in Game 6, and Zetterberg combined for three goals and five points in elimination Games 6 and 7. These two, along with the younger Justin Abdelkader, will man the first line. Look for veterans Johan Franzen, Valtteri Fillpula and Daniel Cleary to improve upon their combined +/- rating of -7 last series, as their performances will be crucial for a Detroit team that lacks some serious front-line depth in comparison to Chicago.

Defense

It’s no secret that the Blackhawks rely on talent, instincts and perfection, as opposed to physicality and strength, like the Boston Bruins, in order to win games. Their blue line is anchored by iron man and former James Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, who led all Chicago defensemen with five points (a goal and four assists) and a +5 +/- rating against Minnesota in round one. Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson bring an abundance of recent playoff experience to the table and a Stanley Cup championship under their belts as well. 34-year-old Michal Roszival and 31-year-old Johnny Oduya have been playing sound, physical hockey, as Roszival leads the team with 11 hits (Oduya has five), while Oduya leads with 11 blocked shots (trailed by Roszival’s 10) thus far in the postseason. Each one of these players, as well as Nick Leddy, at least bring something positive to the table, which is why this unit ranks second in the playoffs in shots allowed per game (27.8) and first in goals allowed per game (1.40). The longer they keep this up, the deeper their playoff run probably goes.

The Red Wings may have played eight defensemen in round one, but only one of them is truly worth noting: Niklas Kronwall. He, like Datsyuk and Zetterberg, has been with Detroit his whole career and is the sole leader of their defensive unit. During the regular season, he led Detroit defensemen in blocked shots with 83 and ranked sixth amongst NHL defensemen in points with 29 . In seven games against Anaheim, he led the Wings roster in minutes per game (25:20 – nearly four minutes ahead of their next best defenseman, Jonathan Ericsson) and their defensive unit in hits (16) and blocked shots (15). The keys for Detroit’s defense will be to limit mistakes and turnovers in their zone (this proved costly against Anaheim), obstruct shooting lanes and not allow Chicago to get behind them in transition. They simply have to play flawless hockey.

Goaltending

Ray Emery should be healthy enough to suit up for Game 1, and that should be a huge plus. But Corey Crawford has been nothing short of spectacular so far this postseason. His .950 save percentage and 1.32 goals against average both rank first for full-time playoff goalies (Kevin Poulin and Tomas Vokoun only played two games each). He has proven to be cool, calm and collected under pressure and has improved upon his ability to control rebounds.

Jimmy Howard hasn’t been nearly as good in net for the Red Wings as Crawford, but that doesn’t mean he can’t get hot. He’s coming off a fantastic performance in Game 7 against Anaheim, where he saved 31 of 33 shots in front of a hostile Ducks crowd. Nevertheless, he has yet to develop any consistency and gain a win against Chicago this season. Until that changes, I’ll remain skeptical.

Special Teams

Let’s just cut to the chase: the Hawks have the best penalty kill in hockey right now. Minnesota had 17 power plays against them last series. How many power play goals did they score? Not a one. Detroit’s power play unit is considered middle of the pack, but they did rank fourth in the first round in power play percentage at 24% (6-for-25). Regardless, a good penalty kill should make fans feel comfortable; a great penalty kill, like Chicago’s, should make fans feel invincible.

On the other had, the Hawks’ power play unit has been mediocre all season long, and that didn’t change against Minnesota. They ranked 19th in the regular season at 16.6% and 10th in the postseason at 15.4% (2-for-13). The good news, though, is that Detroit’s penalty kill is mediocre as well, if not worse. It fared relatively well in the regular season (81.7%), but it gave up seven power play goals against Anaheim in 25 chances (72%), good for 14th out of 16 playoff teams. The Hawks’ power play certainly isn’t anything to write home about, but given the strength of their penalty kill, I’ll give them the edge in the special teams department.

Prediction

“Prediction?… Painnn…”

Actual Prediction

Hawks in 5.

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About Adam Levy

Adam Levy is a diehard sports fan and grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. After graduating with a Master's Degree from Indiana University, he began working at a consulting firm in the loop. In his spare time, he watches sports, re-watches Seinfeld episodes for the 23rd time, plays pickup basketball, competes in sports leagues during the summer, and overvalues all of the players on his fantasy teams. He is extremely passionate about his teams and will likely be found curled up in the fetal position on his bed, crying and cursing after significant losses. If you like his insight, feel free to comment, follow him on Twitter @ChiCityBS, or email him at aplevy1@gmail.com.

Posted on May 14, 2013, in Blackhawks and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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