Who Will The Blackhawks Face in Round One?

The Blackhawks can't be sure who their initial playoff opponent will be.

Counting down to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks are currently hovering between 1st and 2nd place in the West. Depending on their performance and that of their presumed opponents between now and season’s end, the Blackhawks will likely face Detroit, Colorado, LA or Nashville. What are their chances?

Having clinched a berth in consecutive years for the first time since 1997, and likely to win their first Division title since 1993, perhaps even their first Conference title since 1973, the Hawks and their followers should feel pretty good about themselves.

Right?

Judging by the tone of the Hawkey media and the blogosphere, Blackhawk Nation feels anything but ecstatic. Writers and fans spin scenarios drenched with doubt. Even those who say ‘bring it on’, like the iconoclast Mike Kiley of Blackhawks Confidential at the Chicago Tribune, have a hint of fatalism in their swagger.

The Hawks players themselves reflect the muddled atmosphere and sentiment surrounding the team.

As Patrick Sharp expressed a few days ago, with his usual elegance: “It’s always nice to feel like you’re going to postseason play, but we have to find our game pretty quickly. We can’t go into postseason playing like that.”

Adam Burish was more direct after the Columbus loss: “There were some Chicago fans behind our bench who were screaming at us saying, ‘You guys stink.’ When you hear your own fans saying that, it’s embarrassing. You don’t feel good about it.”

The situation overview does not promote optimism.

The defense corps is truncated, with Campbell gone possibly for the duration; Johnsson out for an undetermined period; Sopel suffering through innumerable contusions; and Seabrook coming back after his second concussion of the year. That said, Dustin Byfuglien, Jordan Hendry and Nick Boynton deserve credit for their work so far.

The forwards waver between hermetic/opportunistic two-way play (as in their recent wins over LA and Phoenix) and every man for himself (as in the humiliation in Columbus).

The goaltending controversy appears to have been settled by default. Antti ‘Nemo’ Niemi has been anointed, the first recipient of the impromptu ‘Hawk of the game’ award: a wrestling championship belt bought by Brent Seabrook.

The award may appear only occasionally if the recent trend continues. As of this writing, the Blackhawks are on track to go .500 in their last nine games.

Will they make it past Round One? The possibilities are varied.

Rather than attempt to make statistical comparisons, these snapshots focus on the aspects that could be determining, or so-called ‘series changing’, factors.

The playoffs have been described by Denis Savard, as being where “the best players cancel each other out; so your supporting cast has to make the difference.” The basic assumption here is that Savard is correct.

The following scenarios are ‘best guesses’, based on watching all the teams below on a regular basis.

Their play in the last few weeks of the season, however, can be a critical indicator: last year, all the first round winners, except for Detroit, won at least 6 of their last ten games.

HAWKS VS. DETROIT
The Hawks lead the season series, but the Wings are back and rolling along. The finale will give us a more precise picture of where these rivals are at.

Forwards: Chicago’s Top 6 (Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Bolland, Brouwer) match up well against the Wings (Franzen, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Holmstrom, Bertuzzi, Filppula). Versteeg, Madden and Ladd may be as good as Cleary, Helm and Williams. How effective are Eager, Kopecky and Burish or Fraser as opposed to Draper, Miller, Abdelkader and Eaves? Does Brad May become a factor? Which of Bickell, Beach, Aliu and Dowell does Chicago call up? Do the Wings, as usual, have a young surprise in waiting?

Defense: Keith/Seabrook, Byfuglien/Hjalmarsson, Boynton/Hendry versus Lidstrom/Rafalski, Kronwall/Stuart, Lilja/Ericsson. Lebda, Meech and the very nasty Tollefsen are in reserve. The Hawks have to hope Johnsson comes back, and Sopel heals up; there isn’t much in the pipeline. Will we see young puck mover Shawn Lalonde as the Campbell substitute he is reportedly being groomed to be?

Goaltending: Niemi versus Howard. Never a dull moment.

Competitive Edge: Wings’ experience, their team discipline, and their healthy roster. If they split the opening games with the Hawks, watch out.

Keys to the series: Does Hossa trump Franzen? Does Lidstrom counter Kane?

Probable result: Wings in six.

HAWKS VS. NASHVILLE
The Predators have given Chicago trouble all year. Even if the Hawks have won more games, they’ve been by the narrowest of scores. Barry Trotz’s guys play a suffocating style, and against the Hawks, it works.

Forwards: Check, check and more check. The Preds’ relentless pressure creates turnovers. Hornqvist, Erat, Arnott, Dumont, Sullivan, Legwand, Tootoo and Ward may not dazzle, but they know how to hurt the Hawks on the scoresheet with timely, if infrequent, goals.

Defense: Weber and Suter are arguably the antidote to Keith and Seabrook. Hamhuis, Klein, Bouillon, Franson and Grebeshkov may not be fantasy hockey picks, but they follow the Nashville pattern of defensive reliability; Weber and Grebeshkov have PP cannons.

Goaltending: Finland versus Finland. Take your pick of Pekka and Antti.

Competitive Edge: Nashville’s persistence and special teams allow them to steal a game in Chicago.

Keys to the series: Does Weber counter Kane? Can the Hawks beat the Preds at their own game?

Probable result: Predators in seven.

HAWKS VS. COLORADO
Craig Anderson and the young Avalanche have also proven to be difficult foes for the Blackhawks. Again, Hawks lead the season series by virtue of shootout wins. Though Milan Hejduk and Adam Foote lived the glory days in Colorado, this is uncharted waters for most of the men from Denver. 

Forwards: Chicago’s depth and experience may be too much for the Avs’ speedy talent. Duchene, Stastny, Mueller, Galiardi and O’Reilly are exciting, but Toews, Hossa, Kane, Sharp and Brouwer have the edge.

Defense: Even with the injuries to the Hawk blueline, Chicago hangs in. The Avalanche play a system game but don’t have the standout players that make the difference.

Goaltending: Ex-Hawk Anderson has something to prove. He’s carried the Avs, but he’s played so many games and stopped so many pucks the cracks may begin to show.

Competitive Edge: Chicago’s firepower, depth and experience.

Key to the series: Is Anderson vulnerable?

Probable result: Hawks in six.  

HAWKS VS. LOS ANGELES
This year, Chicago has beaten LA both at home and on the road. The Kings are a rising tide; similar to where the Hawks were a year ago. The question is how the team responds to being in the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Forwards: Kopitar, Brown, Frolov, Justin Williams, ex-Hawk Michal Handzuš and the evergreen Ryan Smyth make for a strong front line; but probably not strong enough against Chicago. 

Defense: Behind the ultra-talented Drew Doughty, the Kings’ blueline is effective. They haven’t shown so far this season, however, that they can bottle up the Blackhawks’ multi-layered attack.

Goaltending: Jonathan Quick is impressive. How does he hold up in the post season?

Competitive Edge: Again, Hawks’ depth and experience; plus the ability to win decisively in LA.

Key to the series: How physical will the Kings be?

Probable result: Hawks in six. 

Summary:

The Red Wings and the Predators appear to have the best chance of beating the Blackhawks in Round One.

But will they even meet in the quarterfinals? The playoff picture is far from clear, as positions are not settled, and may not be until the last day of the season.

We have seen this year that there is no clear favorite in the West.

Every team has at least one evident weakness that can be exploited. Whether citing Jimmy Howard’s playoff inexperience, Nashville’s lack of scoring punch, Colorado’s reliance on Craig Anderson, or the Kings’ presumed nervousness—along with a variety of supposed reasons why the Blackhawks will sink or swim—the x-factors make it tough for the forecasters looking at Chicago.

No one can say, with certainty, who will win Round One in the Western Conference. The unexpected is to be expected. Last year, the top seeds in East and West were toppled by the eighth.

As of today, Vegas odds makers still had the Blackhawks as a 4-1 Stanley Cup favorite—along with the Washington Capitals.

Stay tuned.

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About the Author: David Morris' hockey writing has been featured at KuklasKorner.com and Chicago Sports Then & Now. He is also the North American correspondent for leading Swiss hockey site, Planete Hockey.

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  1. Al Cimaglia says:

    My guess is the Red Wings won’t finish seventh or eight so the Hawks won’t see thme in the first round. Too bad.

    That would mean, the Preds, Kings, or Av’s.

    Any of those three could defaet the Hawks but the most difficult in my view would be LA/Col.

    As far as 1st overall in the West it could come down to the final game against the Wings.

    It will depend on the Wings situation…if they leave a few guys home like last year, the Hawks could finish number one…

    That is if they can take at least five out of six points from the Blues and Wild.

    • Dave Morris says:

      Al, I watched the Wings-Preds game last night…both of those teams look very disciplined in all areas.

      That is a trend I have seen all year from them…which is why I give them the edge over the Hawks in a first round matchup.

      I watch Kings and Avs fairly regularly, and saw them defeated by the Coyotes and Stars last night in decisive fashion.

      Not too long ago, the Hawks had a double digit lead on NSH and DET.

      Certainly the personnel losses have compromised the Hawks’ game, but they don’t have much time left to adjust.

      But if Niemi continues his solid work, anything can happen.

      BTW the NHL Network is showing the 1992 Norris Semi Final between the Hawks and Blues today. As you know, worth watching.

      • Al Cimaglia says:

        Dave,

        I always respect the Preds…great coaching.

        But for a number of reasons… the size and speed in La/Col. makes them tough to match-up with.

        If the Hawks are playing their best they can defeat all of them even without Campbell….playing their best is the issue.

        • Dave Morris says:

          Al, agreed…it’s also amazing how many ‘garbage goals’ make a difference in the playoffs.

          The Hawks have some good ‘garbage collectors’…those guys will need to show up for work.

  2. djd says:

    Dave,

    I’m going to agree with Al. I think the wings will finish fifth. The bottom four will finish like this:
    Wings
    Preds
    Kings
    Avs

    So, depending on one or two seeding, it looks like the Kings and Avs.
    Based on my recent observations of these teams, we should beat the Avs, struggle but still prevail over the Kings. I agree the Preds are going to be one tough match-up for anyone and, well, the Wings are the Wings.

    That was one fine game last night between the Wings and Preds.

    If Thursdays entropic adventure in Columbus wakes this team up, they should be able to capture the first seed. This would keep Vancouver— whom I deem to be the toughest opponent for the ‘hawks—out of the picture until at least round three. That’s my ideal scenario …

    • Dave Morris says:

      @DJD> agreed…the Hawks need to ensure they keep Vancouver behind them. Winning 6 of the last 9 would help that cause.

      Funny thing…watching the Hawks-Blues ’92 first round series today…a lot of ‘messy’ hockey.

      The Hawks actually have players who do well in those kinds of games, like Andrew Ladd, Troy Brouwer and Kris Versteeg. Guys who score goals in unexpected ways at unexpected times.

      Those are players who can get a team through rough patches…and a first round playoff.

  3. I stopped watching after 3-1, and then came back to the TV to see Lambrad score the 7th Goal. Disgrace

  4. feyer says:

    I don’t think, nor do I want to see that the Hawks would face Detroit in the first round. I suggest that the Hawks will improve in each series similar to what we saw last year. Of the 3 choices remaining – Preds, Kings, and Avs, I agree that the Preds matchup is most problematic. This is the playoffs however, so anything can happen, and I’m pretty sure they’ll still have to play the games to determine the outcome ;-)

    • Dave Morris says:

      @Feyer> …and there’s still two weeks to play.

      Right now, only three teams currently in playoff positions have played better than .600 hockey over the last ten games: DET, NSH and PHX.

      Most of them have played .500 hockey or less.

      The Blackhawks are suffering through some unexpected and devastating injuries to top blueliners.

      Bolland and Burish are still working themselves into ‘game shape’.

      The Olympic break didn’t do anyone any favors.

      The challenge of the playoffs seems to be pretty clear to these guys, at least according to what they are saying.

      In about two weeks, everyone starts with a clean slate.

  5. vito says:

    it doesnt matter who the hawks face in the first round as long as they have the hunger and killer instinct to win it all thats what the hawks need if they dont have that then any of those teams can beat the hawks, we will see what kind of team the hawks are.

    • Dave Morris says:

      Vito> you are right about hunger and killer instinct.

      The Blackhawks will need every ounce of that to win playoff games this year.

      They can’t rely on their ‘skill game’ any more.

      They’ll need to play smart, simple, opportunistic hockey. We’ll see if they can.

  6. feyer says:

    As of April 8, here are the possibilites (thanks to Kuklas Korner thanks to NHL)

    WESTERN CONFERENCE
    1. San Jose or Chicago
    2. San Jose or Chicago
    3. Vancouver (locked)
    4. Phoenix (locked)
    5. Nashville, Los Angeles, or Detroit
    6. Nashville, Los Angeles, Detroit or Colorado
    7. Nashville, Los Angeles, Detroit or Colorado
    8. Los Angeles, Detroit or Colorado

    • Dave Morris says:

      Feyer, welcome…and thanks for this.

      Nik Kronwall was on the NHL Live! radio/tv show today and he thinks the Wings will probably finish 5th or 6th, and I tend to agree.

      Also, seeing how the Blackhawks have adjusted their game since losing Campbell and Johnsson, they may have improved their chances for success in the playoffs.

  7. RJF says:

    Colorado is very likely 8th because they would have to win out AND Detroit or LA would have to lose out for them to move up.
    The thing is if the Hawks are #1, they will probably have to face Detroit in round 2.
    If the Hawks finish #2 and Detroit was #6, it is very possible they would only have to face one of San Jose, Vancouver, Detroit and if they faced Detroit it would be in the 3rd round and would still have home ice!

  8. Dave Morris says:

    @RJF> no matter when the Hawks play the Wings, and IF they play the Wings, it’s a tough series.

    Some say earlier is better, others think later means Campbell and Johnsson could be back.