Western Conference Preview: Blackhawks vs. Red Wings. The Ultimate Rivalry

Once of hockey’s greatest and oldest rivalries faceoff against each other tonight as the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings meet for the last time as division rivals, and for the 16th time in the playoffs.  The last time they met in the post season was in 2009 when Detroit was just a little too much for an up and coming young Blackhawks team that was only just beginning to put things together.  Detroit beat the Hawks in five games en route to a second consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup Final losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Personal observation by this writer, some of which has been up close over the years, leads me to say that this is the marque series in round two of the playoffs regardless of the fact that the Red Wings are aging, and have a very porous defence.  The Blackhawks who at times seemed to have coasted in their opening round series against the Minnesota Wild, know that they’ll have to use another gear against a Red Wings team that is full of pride despite being overmatched. This shouldn’t be a problem for the Hawks who had difficulty with Minnesota in game three of the five due to the fact that the Wild played with an enormous amount of physicality.  Ultimately that worked to the Hawks advantage as Minnesota seemed to tire as games four and five wore on.  Chicago’s speed and skill were just too much for the Wild to handle, and Corey Crawford whom in the pre season was the biggest question mark the Hawks had to deal with was just outstanding in goal.

What makes Chicago difficult to match up against is the fact that they can roll four lines consistently, and have the luxury of splitting up Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on a regular basis.  Yet when head coach Joel Quenneville feels he needs some extra juice, he moves Kane to the top line with Toews and Marian Hossa, allowing the Hawks to “load up”.  The top six set of forwards for Chicago is as talented as they come, and the bottom six is able to play and contribute some important goals needed.

Returning to the lineup after missing the entire first round is center Dave Bolland known affectionately as “The Rat”, along with backup goaltender Ray Emery.  It says something about the depth of Chicago when a player like Viktor Stalberg one of the fastest players in the league, could be the odd man out as Bolland returns to the lineup.  While Stalberg’s speed and skill is quite and advantage, he has some brain cramps once in awhile that cause coach Q to lose a bit of trust in him.  Bolland on the other hand is as fiesty and nasty as they come, especially in the playoffs.  He is perfectly adept at taking any member of the opposition off their game.  Toews and Kane were held without a goal in the first round series against the Wild, and you could be the house that scenario won’t repeat itself in this series.

The Hawks who won the President’s trophy for the best overall record during the season,  found even more success when they split up their dynamic defensive pairing of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith.  Since that change, the Hawks have played significantly better, as they posses one of the best group of defencmen in the NHL.  Corey Crawford is 11-2-1 against Detroit during his career, which can only add to the confidence that Chicago will play with.

Detroit’s defence will be severely tested by the youth, speed and skill of Chicago almost to the point where goaltender Jimmy Howard will need to stand on his head just to keep things close.  With perennial Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom now retired, and hard nosed blue liner Brad Stuart traded, the best defenceman that the Wings can dress is Niklas Kronwall.  After that it’s youth and journeymen.  Never a good setup for a team attempting a long playoff run.

The Wings however won’t be a pushover and still have a roster of talented players with Pavel Datysuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen forming a dangerous trio.  Dan Cleary who once was a Blackhawk always seems to play his best hockey against them, thus forcing Chicago not to take anything for granted.  Howard who is the number one netminder for Detroit is facing more shots and having to fend off more scoring opportunities since the retirement of Lidstrom, still was solid throughout the season. Losing the series won’t be his fault, however he has the ability to keep things close.

If this comes down to special teams, the Blackhawks penalty killing unit was perfect against the Wild where they were 100% effective.  However their power play was only 2 for 13, and must improve regardless.  The Wings had six power play goals against the Ducks, but three game in one game (game 2), and their penalty killing unit resembled their so-so performance of the regular season.

From a coaching standpoint you can’t ask for two more highly regarded bench bosses with Mike Babcock and Joel Quenneville leading the way for their respective teams.  Babcock viewed by many as the best coach in the league has had success many times over with both the Wings and the Anaheim Ducks.  Quenneville has shined also, though his greatest achievements came after arriving in Chicago.  Both are no-nonsense types with Q being a bit more emotional, and Babcock a bit more rational.  Yet these are two of the smartest and determined coach’s in the league who have a way of getting the best out of their players.

The Hawks are the best team in the league top to bottom, and they’ll need to play like it against Detroit, a team with a  significant amount of pride.  Coach Q feels that they have another level to play to, and expects them to get there.

This series is one that will prove why next year’s realignment is wrong.

Prediction:  Hawks in 6.

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