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Western Finals An Elite Meeting Ground For NHL Stars

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05/16/2009 8:09 PM - From (link)

Chicago Blackhawks. Detroit Red Wings.

The matchup just reeks of old-time hockey, the colossal collisions in the days of the Original Six –- Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Ted Lindsay, Stan Mikita.

But don’t be misled into thinking the 2009 Western Conference Finals will be a trip down memory lane. This matchup will spotlight a bevy of the League’s top talent, from established veterans like Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Marian Hossa, to the emerging crops of young players that is the Blackhawks, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Kris Versteeg.

The main question as the puck drops is can Chicago’s youth deal with the precise, almost elegant, style of the Red Wings? Detroit won four of the six meetings this regular season, including a 6-4 win at Wrigley Field in the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.

But four and a half months have passed since that terrific afternoon at Wrigley Field. And while the Wings have remained, well, the Wings, eliminating Columbus and Anaheim, the Blackhawks have picked up more than a few interesting tidbits that have helped them on the way to the Western Finals, a journey that has seen the Hawks oust the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks.

Detroit's seemingly never-ending depth was on display in its Game 7 win against Anaheim when big names Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Marian Hossa were all held without a goal, but second-tier scorers Jiri Hudler, Darren Helm, Mikael Samuelsson and Daniel Cleary put the puck in the net. Cleary, who finished in a tie for ninth on the Wings in scoring during the regular season, is fourth in the playoffs with nine points and owns a team-best plus-10 rating. Helm, who's never scored a goal in 23 career regular-season games, now has four in 29 playoff games over the past two seasons.

Of course, the four aforementioned "top guns" combined for five assists in the deciding win over the Ducks, and the Wings expect them to be a factor throughout their title defense. But it's Detroit's ability to rely on its less-heralded players for late-game heroics and to plug in young talent like Helm and Justin Abdelkader that speaks volumes about how tough it will be to shut down.

Well, the youngest team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is certainly coming of age. The Blackhawks outskated and outwitted both the Calgary Flames and the Vancouver Canucks in the opening two rounds en route to earning their first Conference Final appearance since 1995. At first glance, one may think the trio of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp is the group doing most of the damage, but that just isn't the case. Sure, the team's top line has generated 17 of Chicago's 44 goals this postseason, but this team is much deeper than you might think.

Take for instance the fact the Blackhawks ranked 27th in the League in hits at the end of the regular season -- they are third in the playoffs. Dustin Byfuglien has led the way with 55 hits and Brent Seabrook is second on the team with 45. The energy line of Byfuglien, Samuel Pahlsson and rookie Kris Versteeg has combined for seven goals, while Martin Havlat, Dave Bolland and Andrew Ladd have totaled 11. Even the fourth unit of Troy Brouwer, Ben Eager and Adam Burish has played a vital role with 10 points, a plus-4 rating and 61 penalty minutes.

Still, Kane is certainly having the time of his life in the postseason with 12 points and a team-leading eight goals in 11 games. He notched his first career playoff hat trick in Game 6 of the Conference Semifinals against the Vancouver Canucks to help lead the Hawks to a series-ending 7-5 victory.

The return of Brian Rafalski for the final two games of the conference semifinals was a huge boost for Detroit, allowing Mike Babcock to reunite him with captain Nicklas Lidstrom on the top defensive pairing. Having a tandem with veteran savvy and a combined seven Stanley Cup rings to its credit can't be underestimated considering the task ahead against a young and explosive group of Chicago forwards.

In Rafalski's absence, rookie Jonathan Ericsson made the transition from spare part to Lidstrom's defense partner look seamless -- he's a plus-6 for the playoffs while averaging just under 20 minutes per game. Niklas Kronwall has been a workhorse (25:14 average ice time, second only to Lidstrom), and a couple of solid veterans in Brad Stuart and Brett Lebda round out the top six.

Detroit also gets plenty of offense from its defense. Lidstrom has been a point-per-game player through the first two rounds, while a healthy Rafalski tied with his teammate and Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer for third in defenseman scoring during the regular season with 59 points.

Make no mistake about it, the pairing of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith has been flawless in the postseason. The two played a big role in denying Calgary captain Jarome Iginla and Olli Jokinen in the opening round (five combined goals) and did it again against Henrik and Daniel Sedin (five combined goals) of the Canucks in the conference semifinal. Despite seeing heavy duty against the opponent's top line, Seabrook and Keith have combined for 13 assists and a plus-7 rating.

Veteran Brian Campbell, who was paired with rookie Niklas Hjalmarsson for much of the Vancouver series, has also been pivotal to the team's transition with 2 goals, 9 points and a team-best plus-5 rating. Cam Barker, who works the blue line with Matt Walker, has also chipped in offensively with 3 goals and 7 points.

There's no bigger reason the Wings are one of four teams remaining and a threat to repeat for the second time in just over a decade than the re-emergence of Chris Osgood. A question mark to hold onto the starting job during the regular season, when he struggled mightily at times and was outplayed by veteran backup Ty Conklin, Osgood has instead shown why he's a three-time Cup champion with 456 combined regular-season and postseason wins to his credit. He's lowered his goals-against average by more than a goal per game (2.06 playoffs to 3.09 regular season) and dramatically improved his save percentage (.921 to .887). Most importantly, Osgood is back to making the must-have save at the critical moment.

When the Blackhawks need Nikolai Khabibulin to come up big, he's usually there to bail them out. Khabibulin hadn't beaten the Canucks in 11 years prior to the playoffs, but notched four in six meetings in the second round. There's no reason to think he can't keep it up. "The Bulin Wall" is 8-4 with a 2.76 goals-against average and .896 save percentage in 12 postseason starts.

Mike Babcock finally got over the top a season ago after coaching Anaheim to the Stanley Cup Final in 2003 only to come up a win short. Since coming to Detroit for the 2005-06 season, he's won at least 50 games in four-consecutive seasons, joining the legendary Scotty Bowman as the only coaches to accomplish the feat. Babcock isn't just astute when it comes to the X's and O's of hockey, he's also proven adept at pushing the right buttons with his lineups and putting players in the best position to succeed.

What more can be said about Chicago coach Joel Quenneville that hasn't been written already? He's taken a relatively young squad under his wing and has molded them into determined workaholics who do not know the meaning of quit. The Hawks have scored six come-from-behind triumphs this postseason. Quenneville now sports an all-time mark of 50-49 as a head coach in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Nicklas Lidstrom leads the Wings in power-play points with eight, and nine different players have at least one power-play goal this postseason, led by Johan Franzen's three. Lidstrom, Marian Hossa and Jiri Hudler have two apiece. Detroit is operating at a 26.4-percent success rate on the man advantage during the playoffs, a modest improvement over their League-leading 25.5-percent mark.

Chicago, however, has improved from 12th in the regular season to tops in the playoffs with a 29.4-percent success rate, an indication the Wings' penalty kill will have its work cut out. Detroit gave up at least one power-play goal in eight-straight games, a streak that finally ended in Game 7 against Anaheim, and has killed just 71.4 percent of its penalties, the third-lowest rate among the 16 postseason qualifiers.

The Blackhawks are first in the League through two rounds of the playoffs with a 29.4 power-play percentage (15-for-51) with Jonathan Toews leading the way with three power-play goals. The club finished with a 19.3 percentage during the regular season. The penalty-killing unit has been working at a 79.6 percent efficiency (9-for-44) in 12 games. Although it's slightly below its seasonal percentage of 80.6, it was good enough through two rounds of the playoffs.

Chris Osgood, Detroit -- His renaissance in goal for the Red Wings must continue if they intend to go back to the Stanley Cup Final. The only team with a more potent offense this postseason than Detroit (3.60 goals per game) is Chicago (3.67), and Osgood figures to face a lot of rubber during a seven-game series that could very well go the distance.

Red Wings will win if... They can stay out of the penalty box. Killing penalties has been a rare Achilles' heel all season -- Detroit was 25th during the regular season at 78.3 percent and has only seen that number get worse as the calendar inches toward June. The quickest way for the Wings to fall behind in this series will be to give the potent Hawks' offense a bushel of power-play chances on which to unleash their young talent.

Blackhawks will win if... They continue to play fast and work the transition to their advantage. While that may be a tough chore against Detroit, there is something special about this group, particularly on home ice where they are 5-1 in the postseason. The Hawks forced both the Flames and Canucks to play their style of game and it would certainly work to their advantage to force the Red Wings to do the same.

Author: Staff