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Blackhawks Sat May 15 2010

Hawks, Sharks set to face off

So it comes down to San Jose and Chicago, the top two teams in the West, in the Conference Finals with a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals on the line. While the two teams rolled through the regular season, they both had questions that needed to be answered come playoff time.

Many questions were being asked about Antti Niemi in net for the Blackhawks, and at this point, it's safe to say he's answered the call, outplaying Roberto Luongo last series. Meanwhile, after last season's storyline run to the WCF, the Hawks have shown that they can stand up to the pressure of being a favorite going on, though not without some hiccups along the way.

San Jose broke through their playoff struggles in a major fashion, upending the Red Wings in 5 games to advance to the conference finals for the first time since 2004. Joe Thornton shook off a bit of the playoff bust label with 8 points to lead the Sharks, including a dominating performance in Game 5. Thornton was a little more invisible in the first round series against Colorado, and which player shows up for this series will have a big effect on the Sharks' fortunes.

Both teams' styles are built around puck possession, passing and positioning, and the series figures to be a chess match with lots of back and forth play. Similarly, both offenses have some bona fide threats, so while the pace will be a constant, expect some great scoring chances throughtout as well.

Jonathon Toews and Thornton are the leaders of their respective teams, and the two figure to be battling throughout the series. Toews proved his shut-down abilities as a role player in the Olympics, and he'll have his hands full with Jumbo Joe, whose large size and quick hands make him a constant threat when he's on his game. Toews had a monster series offensively against Vancouver, but Coach Joel Quenneville will need him to be as much of a neutralizing factor here to disarm the Sharks top line.

San Jose rolls out a top line of Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley, which may be one of the strongest offensive lines in the game. Factor in the red-hot Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi, and the Sharks have some serious firepower on par with the Hawks' Toews Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp. Chicago may be a little stronger down the line, as Dave Bolland and Kris Versteeg have shown the ability to notch clutch goals. On the special teams front, while Chicago's long-struggling powerplay had some life against the Canucks, San Jose's well-rounded defense will make it more of a non-factor, and the Blackhawks penalty kill is equally up to the task. While power plays and penalties are bound to have an effect on the series, there's no clear advantage on paper, just which team will execute better when the time comes.

On the blue line, after Brian Campbell left the Sharks as a free agent to join the Hawks, San Jose went and got a more than ample replica in Dan Boyle. Both players are puck-moving defensemen who can quarterback the powerplay, though Boyle is also strong in his own end. The Sharks also have Rob Blake, Marc-Edward Vlasic and Douglas Murray, who have limited San Jose's goals against to 2.55 a game, 2nd best in the playoffs.
For Chicago, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will be called upon again to shut down an opposing team's top line. After doing a phenomenal job against the Sedin twins, the Hawks need them to do the same to advance here.

Chicago already knows what they need from Antti Niemi, and to this point, he's provided it. For San Jose, the same holds true for goalie Evgeni Nabakov. Though his play has been up and down in previous playoffs, Nabakov has been solid throughout this spring. Neither goalie is the type that will steal a game, but they both can make the saves when needed. A big factor to watch may be which team relies on their netminder the most. In the playoffs, both San Jose and Chicago have limited opponents to 28.1 shots a game, best of all teams. The team that's able to continue to limit shots and not ask their goalie to do too much will have a great chance of advancing.

While the Hawks took the season series 3-1, including a 7-2 rout in San Jose, the other three games were tight, one-goal affairs with the two other Hawks wins going to overtime. Overall, these are two very well built, well-rounded teams, and the battle ahead figures to be a tense, and amazingly entertaining affair. A prediction of a winner hinges on a lot of intangibles and a little bit of luck, but this series figures to go the distance, with the Hawks having the slightest of advantages.

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