The Western Conference Semifinals begin Wednesday for the Chicago Blackhawks as the Detroit Red Wings visit the United Center for an Original Six postseason matchup. It is the 16th time these two Central Division foes have faced off in the postseason, and it will be their last as conference rivals.
Chicago and Detroit have battled four times in the regular season, with the Blackhawks taking each game in extra time save a 7 – 1 blowout at the Joe Louis Arena in March. But that’s long in the past, and Detroit has never been one to go down without a fight.
The Red Wings rallied back from a 3 – 2 series deficit to Anaheim in the Quarterfinals and found a way to force a Game 7 and eliminate the Ducks. It was a tough series for the Wings – taking four out of seven games into extra time and being shutout in Game 3 could wear down a team. But the defense showed resiliency as the series went on and small mistakes with big impact began to dwindle. Anaheim is a high-pace, highly-skilled team and the Wings managed to shut down the blue line while protecting Jimmy Howard.
Captain Henrik Zetterburg lead the team by example, working hard in the corners and skating with power in his stride. He notched 8 points (3G, 5A) in 7 games against Anaheim, followed closely by the ever-lethal Pavel Datsyuk with 7 points (2G, 5A). Both men have been excellent for Detroit and allowed Head Coach Mike Babcock some freedom in changing up his lines when things don’t go their way.
The Blackhawks have not played in six days, which could be harmful to some teams. But Chicago had a long and exhausting season despite the lockout, so a rest could be a good thing. Dave Bolland missed the first series with a groin injury but is expected to play Detroit in the second round. His rest could be key in having a great first game back in the lineup, likely as the third-line center, bumping Handzus from the spot.
Patrick’s Sharp and Kane made Chicago fans happy in the first round, scoring a combined 11 points (5G, 6A) in 5 games. Sharp missed much of the second half of the season with a shoulder injury but returned with flying colors for the postseason. Marian Hossa found himself on the bench for a short time during that stretch as well, but has since returned to the form that Hawks fans know and love. Hossa ties Sharp for first on the team with 6 points (3G, 3A) in the series against the wild and continues to work doggedly on each shift.
Corey Crawford silenced his critics for his recent postseason play last Thursday in the United Center, and then heard them cheering “Co-rey! Co-rey! Co-rey!” in the third period of Minnesota’s elimination. Crawford remains near the top of the league in each category going into the second round, including a 1.32 GAA, second only behind Pittsburgh’s Tomas Vokoun. His stellar play has been on-par all season. He sees the puck and can hold a strong leg in tight, crease-crashing situations to prevent the puck from reaching the back of the net. His continued efforts will be key to the Blackhawks’ success in this round.
Chicago must focus on puck possession against Detroit, who shows resiliency and skill with the puck. Passes need to be crisp and on the tape to avoid turnovers – a major downfall of Chicago that leads to a goal or at least a great opportunity, many times. Clearing the puck is essential. The Hawks like to chip the puck up the boards softly across the blue line, but that won’t get the job done with Detroit. The Wings sustain heavy pressure from right out of the gate so each and every action needs to be completed with intention to strike rather than just enough to get off the ice.
Jimmy Howard, despite having a nagging hamstring injury, continues to play – and he has continued to play well. Chicago needs to fire away at him and force him to make big plays out of his comfort zone. Patrick Kane has worked wonders drawing the opponent into a soft area to open up the ice for a pass and he’ll need to continue doing that in the effort to break Howard.
The Blackhawks have no listed injuries for Wednesday night’s game. Ray Emery and Dave Bolland missed the first round with lower body injuries but are activated for Chicago. Viktor Stalberg was questionable for Game 1, but has been listed as active as well. For Detroit, Darren Helm (back) and Danny DeKeyser (thumb) have battled injuries in the postseason and are not expected to play tonight. Detroit has activated Drew Miller after missing the first round of the playoffs with a hand injury.
Tonight’s game begins at 7 p.m. CT on the NBC Sports Network – tweet me your thoughts and predictions!