Thursday, April 30, 2009

Live blog and preview of Canucks - Hawks Game I

I'll be live-blogging tonight's Game I clash between the Vancouver Canucks and the Chicago Blackhawks, perhaps with some of the other Out of Left Field staff. The puck will drop at 9:00 p.m. Eastern (6:00 p.m. Pacific). The game will be on CBC in Canada and Versus in the United States. A full preview of the series is after the jump.

How they got here: Vancouver swept St. Louis in four games, but the series was closer than it appeared. Every game was a hard-fought battle and the Blues, the league's hottest team over the last couple of months of the regular season, gave Vancouver a run for their money. Conversely, it took Chicago six games to knock off the Calgary Flames, but Games Five and Six were 5-1 and 4-1 blowouts for the Blackhawks. Chicago's had two full off-days to recuperate, so fatigue shouldn't be too much of an issue for them. Vancouver's been off for nine days, which could make the Canucks a little slow out of the gate tonight. However, the long layoff also means that some key players will be able to return to the Vancouver lineup tonight (Matthew Sekeres, The Globe and Mail), including Mats Sundin, Sami Salo and Taylor Pyatt.

Advantage: Slight edge to Chicago.

The forwards: The Blackhawks have an impressive group of young players up front, including five guys who notched 20 or more goals this season (Jonathan Toews, Martin Havlat, Patrick Sharp,Patrick Kane and Kris Versteeg). Versteeg led the team with seven points in Round I, but Kane and Sharp added six each. Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Dave Bolland also each had 15 goals or more during the regular season. Defensively, their key forward is Sami Pahlsson, who played a crucial role in the Anaheim Ducks' 2007 Stanley Cup victory, but Ben Eager, Troy Brouwer and Adam Burish are also good at the bang-and-crash side of the game.

For the Canucks, the top line of Alex Burrows and Daniel and Henrik Sedin was the key scoring threat this season. Both Sedins put up 82-point seasons (31 goals and 51 assists for Daniel, 22 and 60 for Henrik), while Burrows added 28 goals and 23 assists. Ryan Kesler and Pavol Demitra also had 20-goal campaigns, while Mats Sundin put up a respectable nine goals and 19 assists in 41 games in a second-line role after joining the team midway through the year. Other forwards who can chip in offensively include Steve Bernier (15 goals, 32 points), Kyle Wellwood (18 goals, 27 points) and Mason Raymond (11 goals, 23 points). On the defensive side, Burrows, Kesler and Wellwood have all proven their worth as great two-way players and Ryan Johnson is one of the league's top shot-blockers and defensive forwards.

Most of the previews you'll read for this series give the Blackhawks a substantial edge in forwards, but this year's regular-season stats suggest that the two groups are pretty even. Both teams have solid top lines and excellent scoring depth, as well as several forwards who can backcheck.

Advantage: Push

The defence:
The Canucks' defence corps has an interesting mix of guys who can contribute at both ends of the ice. Kevin Bieksa and Alex Edler provided much of the offence from the blue line this year, notching 43 and 37 points respectively while recording 11 and 10 goals, but both are strong inside their own blue line as well. Mattias Ohlund and Willie Mitchell excel in their own end and contribute offensively from time to time. Sami Salo is notoriously injury-prone, but has one of the hardest shots in the league, while Shane O'Brien and Ossi Vaananen add depth.

The Blackhawks' defence is much younger, but just as impressive. Brian Campbell remains one of the league's elite offensive defencemen. He had a seven-goal, 45-point season and has improved his defensive play as well. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Cam Barker are stars in the making and Niklas Hjalmarsson and Matt Walker add depth. Many writers give the Canucks the edge on defence, but these lineups look pretty equivalent to me. Chicago allowed an average of 29.3 shots against per game during the first round, slightly better than Vancouver's 32.8 mark but not a considerable difference. The one advantage the Canucks have going for them on the back end is playoff experience. Chicago's defence performed well for the most part in the first round, but they showed some jitters in Games Three in Calgary where the Blackhawks conceded 4 and 6 goals respectively.

Advantage: Push

Both teams have strong goaltenders. Roberto Luongo has been consistently outstanding throughout his time in Vancouver and turned in a tremendous performance against St. Louis in Round I, where he put up a .962 save percentage and a 1.15 goals-against average, leading the league in both categories. Khabibulin recorded a .914 save percentage and a 2.52 goals-against average in Round I while facing less shots per game, so he comes up a bit short there. He does have a Stanley Cup on his resume from Tampa Bay's run in 2004, something Luongo can't match. Khabibulin split time with Cristobal Huet during the regular-season, putting up a 25-8-10 record with three shutouts, a .919 save percentage and a 2.33 goals-against average. He's also 0-9-1 in his last 10 games against Vancouver. Luongo put up a 33-13-16 record in 54 regular-season games with a 2.34 GAA and a .920 save percentage, very similar to Khabibulin's numbers and slightly below his usual standards. However, he was fighting through a groin injury for much of the year and appears to be back in dominant form, so the Canucks get the edge here.

Advantage: Edge to Vancouver.

Power play: Both teams had terrific power-play performances in the first round. The Blackhawks converted seven of 24 opportunities for a 29.2 success rate, while Vancouver was four for 18 for a 22.2 percentage. During the regular season, Chicago was 70 for 363 on the power play (19.3%) and Vancouver was 67 for 357 (18.8%). There's not a huge difference here, but the numbers do favour the Blackhawks.

Advantage: Slight edge to Chicago

Penalty kill: During the regular season, both teams were close to the league average on the penalty kill. Vancouver allowed 69 power-play goals on 371 chances for a 81.4 penalty-killing percentage while Chicago allowed 64 goals on 330 power-play opportunities, giving them a 80.6 penalty-killing percentage. In the postseason, both teams have shot up to among the league leaders. Vancouver has only allowed one goal on 24 opportunities for a 95.8 penalty-killing percentage that's second-best in the league (behind only the Boston Bruins, who haven't allowed a goal in the eight power play attempts against them). The Blackhawks have allowed two goals on 18 opportunities for a 88.9 penalty-killing percentage, tied for fourth-best.

Advantage: Slight edge to Vancouver.

The tally: The forward and defence lineups of both teams are quite even, and Vancouver's penalty-killing edge negates Chicago's power-play edge. The Canucks may be slightly hurt by the long layoff, but the goaltending advantage is what makes the difference in this analysis.

The prediction: Vancouver in six.

Other notes: The last time the teams met on March 27, the game erupted into a brawl (Greg Wyshynski, Puck Daddy) that resulted in 12 penalties and at least one accusation of hair-pulling. Expect some of that bad blood to carry over. It should be a good series; the up-and-coming Hawks against the new-look Canucks, with the history between the sides as an added factor to sweeten the pot. Enjoy it, and come join the live blog tonight!

[Cross-posted to Sporting Madness]

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