NHL

Cup champs meet tough first-round foe

InsideHockey INSIDE HOCKEY, Brad Kurtzberg
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This promises to be an interesting matchup between the defending Stanley Cup champion (Chicago) and this year’s Presidents' Trophy winner (Vancouver). To add to the drama, these clubs have met the past two years in the playoffs, with the Blackhawks winning both series. Revenge is certainly on Vancouver’s mind.

There is a load of pressure on the Canucks this year, and anything less than a Cup win would be viewed as a disappointment to fans in Vancouver. The Blackhawks squeaked into the playoffs on Sunday night when the Wild upset the Stars, but a quick exit from the postseason is not something fans in Chicago expect from their team.

The clubs split four games this season, although the teams have not met since Feb. 4 when Vancouver edged Chicago 4-3. Roberto Luongo made 32 saves to blank the Blackhawks 3-0 on Dec. 3. Chicago won the first two meetings between the clubs, routing the Canucks in Vancouver 7-1 on Nov. 20 and winning 2-1 on Oct. 20.

There is a lot of star power in this series. The Blackhawks feature a top line of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane, and Marian Hossa adds firepower to the second line. Their top three defensemen are special — Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook as the top pair with Brian Campbell adding playoff experience and offensive ability.

The Canucks' top line is arguably the most dangerous in the league with Alex Burrows joining twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Ryan Kesler centers a strong second line for wingers Mason Raymond and the underrated Mikael Samuelsson. On defense, the Canucks are deep but have struggled with injuries. Kevin Bieksa, Christian Erhoff, Sami Salo and Dan Hamhuis make a strong top four. Alex Edler and Keith Ballard are the third pair and provide exceptional depth.

In net, Vancouver has Luongo who had a spectacular .928 save percentage in 60 games with a 2.11 goals-against average. Luongo has a history of not playing well in the playoffs and needs to have a strong postseason to change that reputation. Backup Cory Schneider played exceptionally and gives the Canucks depth in case Luongo falters.

Chicago rookie Corey Crawford had a solid year in goal, winning the starting job from veteran Marty Turco, but seemed to tire a bit down the stretch. Crawford has appeared in only one career NHL playoff game. Turco, meanwhile, seems to have lost a step but has been through the rigors of the playoffs before.


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The Canucks also have a key edge on special teams. They have the league’s top-rated power play and rank third on the penalty kill. Chicago is fourth in the league with the man advantage but was only 25th on the penalty kill. If the Blackhawks can’t slow down the Sedins and the rest of the Canucks power play, this could be a short series. The Canucks also led the league in faceoff percentage, which gives them another advantage.

While both clubs have plenty of firepower in their top lines, the difference between the clubs is their depth. The loss of Manny Malhotra will hurt the Canucks, but even without him, their third and fourth lines are vastly superior to Chicago’s. Because of salary-cap restrictions, the Hawks had to deal away many key role players who helped them win the Stanley Cup last year. The posteseason is where the loss of players like Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Versteeg will be felt by the Blackhawks. Meanwhile, third- and fourth-liners like Raffi Torres, Maxim Lapierre, Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen can be difference makers over the course of a long series and will help wear down Chicago.

Prediction: Canucks in six
 

Tagged: Blackhawks, Canucks, Roberto Luongo, Dan Hamhuis

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