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Can Road-Tested Blackhawks Survive in the 'Shark Tank'?

May 14, 2010 – 11:40 AM
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Monte Stewart

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The Chicago Blackhawks have little to show for earning home-ice advantage in the playoffs.

But they haven't had to worry about their sub-par efforts at the United Center so far. The 'Hawks have reached the Western Conference final by winning on the road, which they will have to do right off the bat against the San Jose Sharks.

"We like the way our approach is on the road, and we're disappointed with the way we've played at home," coach Joel Quenneville said at the conclusion of his club's second-round series in Vancouver. "But it's kind of confusing everybody around the league this year. But at the same time, they've got a little momentum and I'm sure they're excited about playing at home as well. So we want to be ready to play. The first two games in the two series haven't been very good."

The Hawks suffered one-sided losses at home to Nashville and Vancouver, respectively, in the opening games of their earlier series. In the case of Vancouver, they responded from a 5-1 shellacking in the opener by eventually mounting an insurmountable 3-1 series lead before finishing the Canucks off in six games for the second straight spring.

"We want to make sure we start at the pace that we established (in Game 6 against Vancouver)," said Quenneville.

He felt the finisher at General Motors Place was his club's quickest yet, which is probably a good thing because, unlike in the first two series, the Blackhawks, who placed second in the West, are starting on the road against the Sharks, who finished in top spot. But the Blackhawks are a confident group after posting three straight wins in Vancouver, leaving a Canucks squad that produced a franchise-record 30 wins at home during the regular season searching for answers.

"It's all right," said winger Patrick Kane, whose club went to San Jose straight from Vancouver. "We've been on long road trips this year. It almost just seems like another one."

The Blackhawks ranked among the NHL's best road teams during the regular season as they went 23-14-4 away from the Windy City and they closed out their earlier series in Nashville and Vancouver's barns. But the Shark Tank, a.k.a. the HP Pavilion, which rates as one of the most unfriendly rinks in the NHL, should prove to be a much tougher venue than Nashville's arena and Vancouver's General Motors Place, where the Canucks mainly self-destructed due largely to a decimated defence corps and inconsistent offence.

The Sharks should also match up much better physically against the bruising Blackhawks. Burly San Jose winger Ryan Clowe is one of the few players who can move Dustin Byfuglien, pictured above, from in front of the net.

The Canucks never found an answer for the 257-pound winger, who anchored himself in front of Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo like a freighter in Vancouver's inner harbour. Three of Byfuglien's four post-season goals were of the Phil Esposito garbage-goal variety as he buried rebounds.

Byfuglien ran roughshod over Luongo most of the series, and the Sharks must make sure that he does not do likewise against netminder Evgeni Nabokov, who does not match up size-wise to his Canucks counterpart and is easier to knock around.

Nabokov, who suffered a meltdown against Canada in the Olympics, is San Jose's biggest question mark as he makes another attempt to get the Sharks beyond the Western final and into the Stanley Cup championship series. His showdown with rookie 26-year-old Chicago goaltender Antti Niemi should be one of the most compelling in the series.

Another intriguing matchup, either head-to-head or for comparison purposes if their lines do not face each other, will be Chicago captain Jonathan Toews and San Jose centre Joe Thornton.

Toews took over the series with the Canucks when he needed to, scoring three goals and adding two assists in the fourth game -- in Vancouver, naturally -- that proved to be the turning point. "Captain Serious" now leads the post-season scoring race with 20 points.

"He's really stepped up and really shown his leadership," said Byfuglien. "He comes to work every day and that's something that our guys really look up to. We always listen when he's talking."

Meanwhile, Thornton showed signs of discarding his "No Show Joe" nickname as the Sharks eliminated a Detroit club that won a Stanley Cup two seasons ago and made it back to the finals last year.

The 'Hawks appear to hold the upper hand on defence, with Norris Trophy finalist Duncan Keith and his Canadian Olympic mate Brent Seabrook leading the way. But the Sharks' blue line crew boasts a couple of Stanley Cup winners in captain Rob Blake (Colorado) and Dan Boyle (Tampa Bay).

Ultimately, as these series always do, it will come down to which team has the greater will and the healthier lineup -- and which team can play better on the road.

"Last year we talked about how experience didn't matter and we could learn as we'd gone along, but I think we went through it once before and can draw from it," said Chicago's Patrick Sharp about falling short of the finals last year. "It's been a different couple of series so far, and hopefully that will help us going forward."
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