When Troy Brouwer scored the first goal of the Blackhawks’ 5-1 series clincher, he put the game of hockey in perspective. With his father recovering from surgery to alleviate a blood clot in his brain, Brouwer showed courage in his return from his absence staying with his father, and getting his game in focus: “Sitting out those couple games gave me a little bit of perspective and thankfully the coaches stuck with me. I didn’t want to disappoint them or the team or my dad.” Now the perspective switches to the Hawks’ second consecutive Western Conference Final and a first playoff meeting ever with San Jose.
This series brings together the number one and number two Western powers, whose final standings were separated by a single point. Tough to imagine two clubs more evenly matched.
The history between the Hawks and Sharks, then, is limited to their regular season contests, though there are some interesting relationships.
Doug Wilson, a former star on the Hawks blueline (traded to San Jose in September ’91 for the little-hailed Kerry Toporowski), and Trent Yawney, a former Hawk head coach (prior to Denis Savard), now wear Shark teal; Wilson as GM, Yawney as assistant coach.
If that weren’t enough, the Sharks have more former Hawks, Dirk Graham and Bryan Marchment in the organization as scouts, and former Hawk assistant coach (and former NHL goalie) Wayne Thomas as SJ’s current goalie coach.
Jeremy Roenick, once a Blackhawk hero, finished his career in San Jose.
Agitating center Scott Nichol had a one-season stint as a Hawk after signing as a free agent back in 2003-04; and defenseman Kent Huskins was originally drafted by Chicago, though he didn’t play any regular season games for the Hawks.
Brian Campbell, who Sharks fans feel deserted them to sign with Chicago (even though he spent only a few months there in the spring of 2008), gets roundly booed in the Shark Tank.
In a parallel story line, Marian Hossa and Dany Heatley were traded for each other in the fall of 2005, with Hossa sent to the Thrashers as Heatley went to the Senators. Both have gone to the Finals and suffered defeat.
Not to be neglected is the fact that the Hawks, with six Olympians (Toews, Keith, Seabrook, Kane, Hossa, Kopecky) on their roster, and the Sharks, with eight (Boyle, Thornton, Marleau, Heatley, Pavelski, Murray, Nabokov and Greiss), already know each other as ultra-high-level hockey players.
Looking at the 2009-10 season, the results seem to indicate Chicago having the edge overall.
November 15, the Hawks pulled out a closely fought 4-3 OT win at the United Center on a crowd-pleasing goal by Brent Seabrook following a late game goalie duel between Evgeni Nabokov and Cristobal Huet.
They stormed into the Shark Tank a little more than a week later and carpet-bombed Nabokov with a 41-shot barrage in a 7-2 thrashing, with Huet in goal for the Hawks.
The Sharks got a measure of revenge a month later, upsetting the Hawks 3-2 in Chicago, victimizing Huet even though they had just 14 shots, while the Hawks launched 47 at Nabokov.
In January, the Hawks got another OT win in San Jose, a 4-3 squeaker after staking themselves to an early 3-0 lead, again with Huet and Nabokov tending the twine.
But as we have seen so often, the ‘second season’ has little or no respect for the regular season. Based on the Sharks’ impressive line-up throughout, and their strong play against Detroit, the Blackhawks have to be wary.
The postgame comments after defeating Vancouver by Coach Quenneville and his players indicated they are well aware of the quality of their forthcoming foe.
Patrick Sharp made his observations about the Sharks’ defeat of the Red Wings: “That was inspiring hockey. They (Sharks) played awesome from top to bottom. They were playing great hockey, as good as I’ve seen in a while.”
Duncan Keith added, “We know they’re a confident group right now. Obviously to beat a team like Detroit in five you’re doing something right. They have a big, strong group of forwards that can skate as well as some of their defensemen. They were first in our conference for a reason.”
The prevailing opinion from the mainstream hockey media suggests this series will be a heavyweight bout, with the victor favored to win it all.
The Vegas line from Belmont Sports Thursday morning, May 12, had San Jose and Chicago leading the contenders at 9-5 odds, followed by Pittsburgh at 5-2.
At time of writing, the potential Finals opponents were still to be decided; Boston, Philadelphia and Montreal are less esteemed by the bookmakers.
The two teams’ entrance and goal scoring music provide a few clues to their self-image. When they bury the biscuit at home, the Hawks are serenaded by The Fratellis’ “Chelsea Dagger”; the Sharks, Gary Glitter’s “Rock N’ Roll”. The Sharks step onto the ice backed by Metallica’s “Seek and Destroy” or Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle”; the Hawks have Rage Against the Machine’s “Testify” atop their theme song playlist.
Both home crowds fill, and electrify, their buildings.
Here’s a breakdown of the Hawks-Sharks, summarizing their head-to-head play and observations from watching them in the post-season thus far.
As previously stated, Chicago had the upper hand in the regular season, though two of their wins were in OT. Both teams won games in the other’s building.
Their offensive/defensive totals are very close, with Chicago is slightly better in goals for (271-264), and also slightly better in goals against (209-215).
Much has been made of the Sharks’ power up front. Thornton, Marleau and Heatley are vaunted weapons. Thornton has finally confounded his critics. The emergence of Joe Pavelski, flanked by power forward Ryan Clowe, and dangerous Devin Setoguchi (20 goals in the regular season, five in the playoffs so far, second only to Pavelski’s nine), gives the Sharks an added dimension. Beyond that, the Sharks serve up a mixed bag. Malhotra is an excellent two-way man; bruiser Torrey Mitchell, grinder Nichol, plus rookies Couture, McGinn and Helminen are all solid players; what impact they will have in the Conference Final remains to be seen.
The Blackhawks continue to show they have scoring balance throughout the roster. Led by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, their playoff numbers confirm their elite status. Toews tops all playoff scorers as of this writing. Some may speculate Marian Hossa’s surgically repaired shoulder may be feeling the pain and limiting his goal production, though he has been a complete two way player. Patrick Sharp has scored some spectacular and timely goals. Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien and Dave Bolland have all found the net when needed, with Versteeg and Bolland also being pesky checkers, and big Byfuglien making life miserable for opposing goalies. Big Troy Brouwer’s key marker against Vancouver suggests he might be ready to return at a critical time. And even the supporting cast, like Tomas Kopecky and Andrew Ladd, can light the lamp. John Madden is bringing his Cup winner’s experience; Adam Burish and Ben Eager are abrasive and effective.
The Sharks’ Top 4 of a pair of Cup-winners (as an Av) Captain Rob Blake, (as a Lightning ) Dan Boyle; the versatile Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and hulking Swede (6’ 3”, 240 lbs) Douglass Murray, will do their best to contain the Hawk attack. Huskins, rookie Jason Demers and late season addition Niclas Wallin round out the defense depth chart.
The Hawks’ Top 4 looked much better against the Canucks than against Nashville. The Keith-Seabrook pairing met the lofty expectations; Brian Campbell appears to be recapturing his pace and timing, and Nik Hjalmarsson improves with each game. Veteran Brent Sopel and sophomore Jordan Hendry have their flaws, but Sopel is still a bulwark on the PK and as a shot blocker.
Reiterating the maxim stated by Hawks legend and former coach Denis Savard is appropriate: “In the playoffs, your stars usually cancel each other out. So your supporting cast has to make the difference.” How Malhotra, Nichol, and company fare against Bolland, Madden, Versteeg, etc. will be a key element to their respective clubs’ result.
Neither the Hawks nor the Sharks will back away from the rough going. That said, these teams will probably pit skill vs. skill.
Again, the margin between Chicago and San Jose is close. Playoff power play efficiency has the Hawks at 21.6%, the Sharks at 19.3%.
On the PK, Chicago is 88.7% effective; San Jose, 84.2%. Beyond the numbers, the teams have the ability to get the job done, so the special team battle should be exciting to watch.
Evgeni Nabokov may not have the Hawks in his head the way Roberto Luongo does, but he has found himself on the receiving end of a relentless opponent wearing the Indian Head. If and how Chicago exploits their past ability to solve Nabokov will be a key to the series.
On the other side, Antti Niemi will be new to the San Jose shooters, and them to him. Can the Finn out-duel the Russian, as he did Rinne and Luongo, and continue to surprise those who claimed the Hawks’ weakness is between the pipes?
Their respective playoff records so far, again, tell a very similar tale: Niemi, 8-4, 2.57 GAA, .909 SV%, 2 shutouts; Nabokov, 8-3, 2.43 GAA, .907 SV%, 1 shutout.
The Blackhawks and Sharks may not ‘hate’ each other, but both franchises face the realization that a Cup chance doesn’t come often.
The Hawks are looking for their first trip to the Finals since 1992, amidst an almost fifty-year Cup drought. They are still smarting from their elimination by the Wings in last year’s Conference Finals, and the taste of what could be is probably still fresh. Virtually all of that squad returns, and the experience may work to their advantage.
The Sharks who entered the NHL the same year the Hawks last went to the Finals, have yet to capture Stanley silver in their twenty year existence. San Jose has never played in a Cup Final, losing to the Flames in their only WCF appearance in 2004. Patrick Marleau and Evgeni Nabokov are the only Sharks remaining from that pack. Both are UFAs after this season.
The Hawks have three players (Madden, Kopecky, Ladd) with Cup rings; the Sharks, four (Blake, Boyle, Huskins, Wallin).
And the Olympians—especially the Canadian ones—on both squads, have a motivation to add another ultimate honor to their resumes.
So it may all come down to, ‘Who wants it more?’
The excellent Todd McLellan has proven himself with successive Conference titles; he has implemented a robust system, which owes much to his time with the Red Wings organization. He has a Cup ring as an assistant in Detroit.
Joel Quenneville has the confidence of his troops, and has shown he and his staff can make the necessary game-to-game adjustments. He has more post season experience than McLellan, and also has a Cup ring as an assistant.
Keys to the series:
With the level of skill being so high, and the advantages for each side minimal, consistent execution and effort make the difference. As is the norm in playoff hockey, and especially at this stage, mistakes and unpredictable events will play their part.
With two such dynamic teams, the battle should be fast and furious.
Both teams have the ability to win a game on the road. This series could easily go seven games.
Chicago now finds itself on the other end of ‘home ice advantage’, which appears to be none at all if this year’s playoffs are any indication.
If any factors can be spotlighted, it will be goaltending; and the teams’ ability to limit the damage by their respective snipers.
‘Expert’ predictions have also been shredded.
Still, if the Blackhawks can do what they have done against Vancouver, and what they did against San Jose this year, it might tip the scales in their favor.
The Hawks will be looking for the split in the first two meetings at the Shark Tank. Should they accomplish that, the goal they have set for themselves is within their reach.
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.