After years of criticism for not providing postseason offense and leadership for the San Jose Sharks, forwards Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau answered their critics with strong performances as the Sharks eliminated the Detroit Red Wings. But the question now is can they do it again with the stakes much higher in the Conference Final against the Chicago Blackhawks? With so much on the line, a strong series for Thornton and Marleau will be necessary if the Sharks hope to advance to their first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history.
Conference finals spotlight
And then there were four as the NHL's Conference Finals have commenced with the San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks squaring off in the West while the Philadelphia Flyers take on the Montreal Canadiens in the East. Here's a look at the notable storylines of the Conference Finals.
Experience vs. youth
The San Jose Sharks go into the Western Conference with considerably more playoff experience than the Chicago Blackhawks. While most of the Blackhawks core of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Dustin Byfuglin and Antti Niemi lack postseason experience (many made their postseason debuts for the first time last spring), they make up for in youthful energy. Both clubs also carry some baggage into this series; the Sharks needing to shake off the "playoff choke" label, the Blackhawks hoping to end their team's 49-year Cup drought. It'll be interesting to see if the Sharks' experience carries them to victory or if the Blackhawks' youth wins the day.
Heading into this year's playoffs, Montreal winger Michael Cammalleri was struggling to regain his scoring form. After missing nearly two months to a knee injury, Cammalleri failed to score in his first nine games back. In the playoffs, however, he's turned into a scoring machine with 12 goals in 14 playoff games heading into the Conference Final to lead all postseason scorers. Four of those goals came on the power play, and three were game-winners. The Canadiens will look to Cammalleri to continue his high-scoring ways if they hope to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
Giants vs. the little guys
The Eastern Conference Final will be a classic matchup of speed against brawn. The Habs' top forwards this spring have been Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Tomas Plekanec, each of whom stands less than 5-11 and weighs less than 200 lbs. Of the Flyers defense corps, only Kimmo Timonen stands under 6 foot and 200 lbs. Leading this group is hulking (6-6, 215) former Norris winner Chris Pronger, who plays with a nasty edge to his game. How Montreal's small, swift forwards match up against Philadelphia's big, physical defensemen could well be the determining factor in the outcome of the Flyers-Canadiens series.
Can Michael Leighton deliver?
Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak has received justified praise for carrying his team to the Conference Final, but the saga of Philadelphia Flyers backup Michael Leighton could also become the stuff of legend. Returning to action after missing 19 games with an ankle injury and with his team down three games to one against the Boston Bruins, Leighton replaced an injured Brian Boucher and backstopped the Flyers to three straight victories as they upset the Bruins in seven games. It now remains to be seen if Leighton can deliver the strong goaltending required for the Flyers to march to the Cup Final. He's off to a good start with a 6-0 victory in Game 1.
Nabokov vs. Niemi
Goaltending is always important in any playoff series and the Western Conference Final features an interesting matchup between San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov and Chicago's Antti Niemi. Nabokov has years of postseason experience while Niemi is playing in only his third career playoff series. Interestingly both have nearly similar stats heading into the Conference Final. Nabokov was 8-3 with a 2.43 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage; Niemi was 8-4 with a 2.57 GAA and a .909 SP. Neither had been particularly dominating throughout these playoffs, but they've risen to the occasion when their teams have needed them most. In this series, however, one of them will have to play their best hockey of the playoffs to backstop their team to a Cup Final berth.
Over the past two seasons, Chicago Blackhawks forward Dustin Byfuglien has averaged 16 goals and 33 points in the regular season, but once the playoffs start he turns into a big offensive presence. The 6-foot-3, 250 lb. winger creates havoc in front of opposing goaltenders using his big body not only as a screen but also to cash in on offensive opportunities. In the 2009 playoffs, Byfuglien had nine points in 17 games, and this spring he has five goals and seven points in 13 games, including two game-winning goals, one of which sealed the Blackhawks 2-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. It is apparent Byfuglien intends to be a constant headache for the Sharks defense and goaltending.
The Great Gagne
It's no coincidence the Philadelphia Flyers' incredible rally over the Boston Bruins began with the return of veteran winger Simon Gagne. Gagne missed the first three games of that series -- all Flyer losses -- due to surgery on his right foot. But in his surprise return in Game 4, he scored the overtime winner, which put the Flyers on the road to a seven-game series victory. Since his return, Gagne has five goals and six points, including a goal in the Flyers' 6-0 drubbing of the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the East finals. His leadership and timely offense could be just what his club needs to march to the Stanley Cup Final.