Series Preview – #2 Blackhawks vs. #3 Canucks

It’s the "Rematch in Round 2". Canucks vs. Blackhawks. Luongo vs. Kane. Kesler vs. Ladd. And it’s gonna be goooooooooooood.

This WILL be the best series of the second round. There is absolutely no disputing that. It will be filled to the brim with scoring, hard hitting, emotion, nail-biting finishes and general nastiness. Each game will be an all-out battle. The series will be war. A bloody, nasty, hate-filled war.

In last year’s second round series, the Canucks looked to have the upper hand. They were up 2-1 in the series and 2-0 in game 4. When suddenly the wheels fell off, the Canucks’ well ran dry and the Blackhawks skated circles around them to win the final three games of the series. In fact, it’s quite similar to the Canucks’ most recent series against the LA Kings, with the Canucks as the eventual winner. This year, the Canucks come in to this series better equipped than last year. They have more scoring, a more mobile defense, and a goalie armed with a goal medal which will hopefully give him the mental strength he needs to survive this onslaught.

Where the Canucks hold the edge:
1. Power Play. This will be a huge advantage if this series is as rough and bruising as many are predicting. Lots of penalties could mean lots of opportunity on the Power Play, and the Canucks have an edge here. As well, the Blackhawks power play was surprisingly average against Nashville.
2. Goaltending. I refuse to give an edge in goaltending to a team with a rookie goalie, based purely on the fact that he is unproven. Sure he was reasonably sharp in the first round, but Nashville does not have nearly the scoring strength that the Canucks have. For the Canucks, Luongo did not look terrific in the first three games, but in his last three games, he returned to form. Strong, solid, stable, with a few ridiculous saves thrown in for good measure.

Where the Blackhawks hold the edge:
1. Defense. They boast two Olympic gold medalists and a Norris trophy candidate. Granted, the Canucks just beat a team with a gold medalist and Norris hopeful. That said, the Blackhawks have a VERY strong top 3, and a much weaker bottom 3. Their top 3 of Keith, Seabrook and Campbell are arguably the best top 3 in the league. But their bottom 3 of Hjalmarsson, Sopel and Hendry aren’t exactly lighting the league on fire. Interestingly, Keith didn’t have a very strong first round, while Sopel was a machine on the PK. While the advantage looks big for the Blackhawks on defense, it’s actually much closer than first glances. So I’ll give Chicago a slight edge here.
2. Penalty Kill. The Blackhawks PK was a MACHINE in the first round, specifically Brent Sopel. Again, if this series is as filled with penalties as many are expecting, killing them off will be very important. While the Canucks vastly improved their PK in their final 2 games against the Kings, they have a long way to go to match the prowess of the Blackhawks.

Where they’re even:
1. Forwards. The Canucks have the Art Ross winner and Hart nominee and a Selke candidate. They also have huge scoring depth through 3 full lines. The Blackhawks have a very potent offense, lots of firepower and boatloads of grit and sandpaper. Where the Canucks couldn’t match the Blackhawks last year was a run-and-gun goal fest. This year, I would argue that the Canucks have a slight advantage now, yet a much less rugged forward corps than Chicago. Canucks have more scoring punch; the Blackhawks have more actual punch. It’s a toss-up.

The Canucks will win if:
1. Luongo is as sharp through the whole series as he was in the final games against the Kings. That’s the Luongo the Canucks need and expect.
2. They win the battle on special teams. If they can keep up their spark on the PK as they did in games 5 and 6 against LA, and their PP is as potent as it’s been all year,
3. They steal a page or two out of the Predators’ defensive playbook on how to limit the Blackhawks top 4 forwards. Only 4 Blackhawks has more than 2 points in the first round – Kane, Toews, Hossa and Sharp. There’s the focus. Nashville limited the Blackhawks to only 4 goals through the first 3 games. Then they simply fell off the map. If the Canucks can match the Preds playbook through the first three games

The Blackhawks will win if:
1. They dominate on the Powerplay. If Chicago pulls another "LA" and lights up the Canucks on the PP, they’ll own this series.
2. They get to Luongo early and often. If Chicago wins game 1 3-2 and they fire 45 shots at Luongo, he’s fine. In fact, he’s more than fine. If Chicago wins 7-5 on 25 shots and Kane gets another hat-trick, the Canucks are DONE. One early bad game out of Luongo and the Canucks chances are slim to none.
3. Niemi outplays Luongo. Antti Niemi did not have to be especially good against the Predators. He will HAVE to be really good, if not great against the Canucks. Furthermore, he has fewer margins for error than Luongo, because frankly he isn’t as good as Luongo. He’s completely unproven. But one thing on his side is naivety. He’s never been here before, so he doesn’t know what it’s like. But if the Canucks can chase him, and the Blackhawks have to go to Huet, they’ll be in serious trouble.

Last round, I didn’t officially go on record with a prediction. However, the consensus pick that I shared turned out to be exactly correct. This round, I did make a prediction. During our Canucks blogger session, I predicted that the Blackhawks would win in 7 games. The teams split their season series, the 7stats against each other were almost identical across the board.
Yahoo! Sports is split on who will win.
Sportsnet has the Blackhawks winning in 7 games, as does CBS Sports.
ESPN’s Pierre Lebrun has the Canucks winning, as does TSN’s Bob McKenzie (via Twitter).

It wouldn’t surprise me at all, if this game went into double overtime in Game 7 to decide this series. It’s just that close. And boy is it going to be good!