What grade would you give the Hawks on their first round series?
Fifth Feather: Probably a B-. We predicted the series to go 7, but we didn’t think it was going to take a careless Martin Erat turnover with under a minute to play to finally kick-start the Hawks past the Preds. Up until that point, the Hawks seemed genuinely intimidated by the Predators. Whatever, though, they survived and advanced. Style points don’t really mean a whole lot this time of year.
Blackhawk Up: I’d say C+. The ‘Hawks looked stone-faced at times in the series and rather lethargic for the first five games. I still don’t believe they played with a lack of effort, I just think Nashville out-worked them. Despite the fact the teams played six times in the regular season, the Blackhawks still seemed surprised by the Preds’ disciplined style and tenacity on defense. Either way, the ‘Hawks are moving on and the Preds are on the golf course.
Third Man In: C. The Hawks themselves can’t be proud of that first round, knowing they were lucky, at the very least, to get out of it in six games. In game one they skated like a team not convinced they could be beat. Game three; shell-shocked when the Preds came out with all the aggression and confidence of a group sure they could upset the 2nd-seed. Luckily for the Hawks, Nashville was not nearly as skilled up front, or deep on the back-end. Vancouver is close in both respects and spent an entire calendar year building off last year’s Game 6 collapse to reach this chance at redemption. They have all the tools and of the teams remaining, outside of the defending champions, they scare me the most from a Hawks’ standpoint. The effort and intensity must be turned up exponentially if the Hawks wish to eliminate the Nucks and trudge closer to their One Goal.
Second City Hockey: Nothing more than a B/B-. They simply didn’t show up for Game 3, which rules out an A, and they had patches in each game that made us all itchy. They were so panicky in their own zone, which would have been death against a more talented team. That said, they showed a fair amount of grit and heart after going down 2-1, and especially Game 5 which was pretty much all guts.
Are you more or less confident in Antti Niemi now?
FF: Niemi developed the knack for making the important saves in Round 1. Hopefully that continues. Even in Game 5 and the beginning of Game 6 when he was his most skittish, he seemed to buckle down and make huge stops when the team needed it most. Specifically in Game 6 at the beginning of the second period. Don’t recall who it was against, but he made a big time stop on a point blank opportunity that seemed to slow down the Predator assault. So basically, we remain confident in him but not overly confident if that makes any sense.
BU: I think it’s pretty funny everyone questioned the Blackhawks goaltending coming into the playoffs, yet Niemi was one of the most solid ‘Hawks in the series. I’m still even-keeled about Niemi, but that’s not a bad thing. Ever since the Olympic break I felt Niemi was a good enough goaltender to lead the ‘Hawks to the Cup, and I still think that way now. He was a huge reason Nashville scored only one power-play goal the entire series, and he made the big saves when he needed to — mainly the huge stop early in OT of Game 5.
TTMI: As much as I expected, and noted, the Predators’ balanced attack to be just good enough to give the Hawks fits and push the series to six games, I don’t think a series with the Predators tells us much about Niemi’s ability to backstop the Blackhawks to a Cup. On the other hand, a seven-game series with Vancouver will. Yet, he simply needs to be steady. Spectacular would be nice, but so many things must go tits up before it comes to a point when the team is asking Niemi or Huet to carry them on one or the other’s back. With Niemi, what has impressed me is his apparent calm demeanor and compete level. He hasn’t had the stinker you can expect in a long playoff season, and how he responds to one in high pressure situations such as these will be interesting. Specifically because his coach never gave him that opportunity during the season (Think March 2nd on Long Island). We will see Cristobal Huet in this series and how the beleaguered Frenchman performs and whether it’ll be good enough for Quenneville to have enough confidence to go back to him in later rounds will be an important footnote to this series. I haven’t seen anything from Niemi that says to me he won’t be just good enough to win four out of seven versus Vancouver, but only if the Hawks elevate their compete level from the Nashville series several notches. Again, goaltending won’t be the reason the Hawks don’t advance or win the Cup. The group in front of Niemi/Huet is too talented to let this opportunity slip away.
SCH: About the same. I could find evidence in the series to support both sides, but bottom line when the Hawks had to have saves in Games 2, 5, and 6, he provided them. He wasn’t great in the last two games, but he was good enough, and that’s all the Hawks ask. I actually think he’ll be better in this series because there’s little chance of him seeing extended stretches without a shot against, so it’s less likely he’ll get out of rhythm.
Looking ahead, what’s the most important factor or player in this series against the Canucks?
FF: Hands down has to be Roberto Luongo. The Vancouver defensive unit is suck-tacular and depends on Luongo to bail them out at every corner. Willie Mitchell appears out for this series so that only makes matter worse for the Canucks. They’re going to need Lu to win at least 2 games for them and even that might not be enough. After seeing Shea Weber and Ryan Suter for 6 games, the Hawks top forwards have to salivating at the thought of Christian Ehrhoff and Sami Salo trying to shut them down.
BU: I could say Luongo or the Sedins, but that’s just too obvious. Luongo will make some great saves and will steal a game, maybe two, by himself. The Sedins are going to get their points and make an impact because, well, that’s what they do. The main factor for the Blackhawks is to shut down the rest of Vancouver’s role players — Samuelsson, Kessler, Demitra, Burrows, et al — from making too big of an impact on this series. Samuelsson scored 11 points against Los Angeles and was a huge factor in the Canucks surviving that series. I’m more concerned with keeping their third and fourth line off the score sheet than worrying about what we already know will be difficult to contend with.
TTMI: Honestly, it’s the coaching matchup making me most nervous for the Blackhawks’ chances. Foreshadowing a seven-game series on the Chicago side, comes with it three Blackhawk losses. Which means three Joel Quenneville panic attacks; three lineup changes and three unnecessary shuffling of the forward lines. Matchups will decide the series. The Hawks publically admitted they weren’t prepared after two of their first round losses and that’s unacceptable. Quenneville is an active coach, and that isn’t always a good thing. Alain Vigneault is no dummy. He saw the Nashville series and expect him to emulate Barry Trotz’s system, which is not at all different from the one Vancouver had success with in last year’s Conference Semi-Final. This should play into Quenneville’s hands. When Vigneault’s team got away from it at home, the Blackhawks gained momentum. Criticism of Luongo’s play in the Kings’ series is unfair. He was as good as can be expected with Bieksa, Salo and Alberts portraying turnstiles for the most part. The Hawks will get more than enough quality chances to put Vancouver away. That being said, containing three scoring lines will be the Hawks chief concern. If Kane is to stay on Toews’ line, they shouldn’t be matched against the Sedins/Burrows (or Samuelsson as it is now. I expect it will change though) trio. This is where Patrick Sharp (the new 2nd line center in town now that everyone has accepted the fact ‘El Sucko’ Dave Bolland manages to drag two of the greatest players to wear Hawk sweaters, Kane and Hossa, down to his pathetic, over-rated level) and Marian Hossa become the most important Hawks. Not only will Hossa actually need to show up for every game, but he and Sharp MUST work as hard as they can to contain Vancouver’s biggest punch.
SCH: I pretty much agree with the Feather here, it’s Sideshow Bob. The Canucks blue line just isnt’ very good no matter how you dress it up, especially without Mitchell. They’re also undisciplined, which means lots of power plays for the Hawks against what was at best a suspect kill for Vancouver. Add to that the likelihood that the Canucks are going to go up and down with the Hawks, and that defense is going to get exposed and need Luongo to bail them out. He still has never proven he can do that series long, and he’ll have to for Vancouver to win.
What’s your prediction for the series?
FF: Is predicting a sweep a bit over the top? Honestly, this series has all the feel of one. The Canucks are so emotionally charged for this match-up that it may only take a couple things to go wrong before they go driving off the edge of a cliff. Predicting a sweep, though, is too “Super-Fan”ny for us, so we’ll say Hawks in 5.
BU: I complete agree with what Fifth Feather said about the emotion Vancouver will have coming into the series. However, I’m not going to discount it as being a major factor. Do the Blackhawks come out flying all over the ice to score four goals in the first period of Game 6 without that frantic finish and dramatic win in Game 5? Riding emotion can go a long way. Still, I think the Blackhawks win this series six games.
TTMI: While their occasionally uninspired performance in the Nashville series has cast some personal doubts, I’m sticking with my pre-playoff prediction for this series; Blackhawks in 7. This will be an old-fashioned heavyweight slugfest for the ages. Both teams will show stints of invincibility and many rounds (periods) will leave spectators exhausted if not breathless. No two games will mirror the other and the lingering effects will show for months. Vancouver won’t go 1 for 27 on the power play, so Byfuglien, Versteeg and Bolland in particular will need to keep their cool. Mikael Samuelsson will win one in OT; Ryan Kesler won’t ever be able to get a table in this city again. Home ice will be an early factor, but the Hawks will need games 6 and 7 to take the series. And they will.
SCH: Well, I’m starting to see the Feather’s side of things, but I think there’s probably too much scoring on the other side to go that quickly. Plus, the Hawks will throw in one stinker in Vancouver, based on recent evidence. So Hawks in 6, quite possibly 7, and lots of puking from me.
Finally, does Chris Block have the finest hair you’ve ever seen on a man?
FF: Rumor has it he and Eddie O take turns styling each other’s flowing locks.
BU: He needs to cut some of it off and give it to me so I can have some hair to add to my horrific, ridiculous playoff “beard.”
TTMI: My instincts would tell me this is right time for me to turn heel and shave my head completely. Or bleach my hair blonde, buy some Night Rider sunglasses and strut around like “Nature Boy” Ric Flair circa 1986. But that was so last summer. Instead I think I’ll just meet Soaps over at Edzo’s for our usual pregame, where we lube each other’s mane with castor oil as always. Edzo says the shiny grease-ball shyster look distracts from all the lumps and scars he acquired during those many arduous 1994 Stanley Cup Playoff appearances with the Rangers. Brent is there because, well, let’s face it; rumor has it no one has ever seen me and Brent in the same place at the same time. I go over there for head massages. Hey now?!
SCH: It really is sickening. As someone not blessed with any hair, I think I can shoot Block and get away with it in court, that’s how good it is. Crime of passion, or something.