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Blackhawks Fri Apr 30 2010

Hawks and Canucks set to renew 'acquaintances'

Now, this...this will be playoff hockey at its best. The Hawks square off against the Vancouver Canucks in the best of 7 series beginning tomorrow at the United Center, a rematch of last season's Conference Semifinals, which saw Chicago advance in 6. The two teams feature some of the top offenses in the league, with the Canucks ranked second with 3.27 goals per game, and the Hawks third at 3.2, meaning points will be put on the board. And with no love lost between the two and higher expectations, expect this series to be even more physical and punishing than last year's knock-down, drag-out battles were.

Though both teams have many familiar faces from last year, the two major new additions will have an impact on this series. Vancouver's Mikael Samuelsson exploded for 11 points in the Canucks 6 first round games, including 7 goals. On the flip side, no goal was more clutch than the Hawks' Marian Hossa's gamewinner in Game 5, and Hossa's competitive nature has been a force all postseason.

Full preview and schedule after the jump.

Special teams will make all the difference given the expected nature of the series. Chicago limited Nashville to 1 goal in 26 power-play opportunities, while the Canucks penalty killers gave up 10 goals in the same amount of power plays to the Kings. Both sets of numbers are aberrations, and show where each team's strengths and weaknesses lie. Chicago's penalty kill is top notch, but Vancouver is a much stronger offensive team and will get plenty of chances. Likewise, the Canucks Achilles heel is their blue line, and the Hawks power play will really need to pick it up a notch in an area they've struggled all season long. The team that puts up the stronger special teams numbers will have an inside track to a series victory.

The other major factor is goaltending. While Antti Niemi proved himself more than capable in the first round against the Predators, the Canucks have the talent to challenge him all game long. Any team boasting the NHL's leading scorer and an MVP finalist in Henrik Sedin is dangerous, and his twin brother Daniel is just as skilled. The duo, no matter who they're paired with, are too good to be completely shut down, so it'll be up to Niemi, along with the lines of Jonathon Toews and John Madden, to limit the damage as much as possible. Vancouver also got a huge jump from Samuelsson's 7 goals in Round 1, and has Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows and Pavol Demitra to round out their high-scoring attack. Niemi has shown he can hold his own, but the first-round games where the Hawks struggled were cases of the defense providing too many quality opportunities. With Vancouver, too many mistakes in your end can be deadly.

On the flip side, Roberto Luongo is the goalie who has his big games, but was also rattled to the point of tears by Dustin Byfuglien and the big Hawks forwards last postseason. Byfuglien will be shifting back to forward and be planted in front of the net, and the Blackhawks will be generating traffic and firing shots at Luongo at will. Vancouver's defense is banged up, with Willie Mitchell out to start the series, and the Hawks offense has the speed to blow by the Canucks blue line. The more chances Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg, and Patrick Kane can generate, with the Hawks forwards crashing the net for rebounds, the higher the pressure builds on Luongo. While his talent level is far above Niemi's, he's also shown his weaknesses far more often than the rookie Hawks goalie. Get in his head like they did last season, and the Blackhawks can make any supposed goalie advantage Vancouver has moot.

This series is going to be a rough and tumble, back and forth battle. It's not too much of a stretch to say the survivor, if they're not too bruised and battered, will be a favorite to advance to the Stnaley Cup Finals. For the Hawks to be that team, they'll have to start scoring more with the man advantage and wreak havoc in front of Luongo, keep their heads about them despite all the talk and rough stuff, and lock things down on the blue line. Niemi can make the saves he needs, but if he's hung out to dry too often, the Canucks will capitalize.

Full Schedule (Games 5-7 if necessary)
Game 1: Saturday, May 1 -- 7 p.m., United Center, Vs.
Game 2: Monday, May 3 -- 8 p.m. United Center, CSN
Game 3: Wednesday, May 5 -- 8:30 p.m. at Vancouver, CSN
Game 4: Friday, May 7 -- 8:30 p.m. at Vancouver, Vs.
Game 5: Sunday, May 9 -- 7 p.m., United Center, CSN
Game 6: Tuesday, May 11 -- 8:30 p.m. at Vancouver, CSN
Game 7: Thursday, May 13 -- 7 p.m., United Center, CSN

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