The Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks have had one of the best rivalries in the NHL, dating back nearly to the dawn of the League. They'll get to renew that rivalry one more time in the Western Conference Semifinals.
The last time the teams met in the postseason was the 2009 Western Conference Finals, which the Red Wings won in five games. That Red Wings group was the defending Stanley Cup champion, while the Blackhawks were growing into the group that would win the Stanley Cup a year later.
This time, it's the Blackhawks who are the favorites, while the Red Wings are seen as the plucky underdogs.
This will be the 16th time the teams have met in the postseason, and with realignment next season moving Detroit to the Eastern Conference, it could be their last matchup for a while.
Here's a tip for any NHL team trying to build a successful roster: Start with two of the best two-way forwards in the League. Obviously that's not easy to do, but Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg remain world-class players and create matchup problems for opposing coaches, because while many teams don't want their top forwards trying to shut down opposing top players, these two thrive at it and still produce offensively.
Justin Abdelkader typically plays with them and adds a big body and the ability to win battles and get to the net. The second line, which featured Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula and Daniel Cleary, scuffled at times in the first round, but the young third line has been something of a revelation.
Coach Mike Babcock said the Red Wings couldn't beat a team like the Anaheim Ducks earlier in the season, but the maturation of Gustav Nyquist, Joakim Andersson and Damien Brunner made it possible. The fourth line is a mixture of grizzled veterans (Todd Bertuzzi, Mikael Samuelsson), and energy players like Patrick Eaves, Cory Emmerton and Jordin Tootoo.
The first round displayed perfectly what a deep and talented corps of forwards the Blackhawks possess. Neither Jonathan Toews nor Patrick Kane had a goal -- in fact, Toews only had two points for the series, tying him for eighth on the club -- and the Hawks still beat the Minnesota Wild in five games.
How did Chicago advance despite Toews and Kane both registering goose eggs in the goal column on a combined 32 shots? For starters, Patrick Sharp rebounded from an injury-riddled second half of the regular season to score five goals in as many games, while Marian Hossa scored three goals and tied Sharp for the team lead in points with six. Kane, to his credit, did lead the Hawks with five assists.
Also, you can win without all of your top players lighting the lamp if you have Bryan Bickell scoring three goals (including the overtime winner in Game 1) and fourth-liners like Michael Frolik (two-goal Game 2) and Marcus Kruger (series-winning goal in Game 5) contributing. Of the 13 forwards who dressed for the Blackhawks in the first round, 11 registered at least one point.
Niklas Kronwall has assumed the No. 1 role and took another step forward this season. He should finish in the top eight or so in the Norris Trophy voting. Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson form a steady top pairing.
Kyle Quincey and Brendan Smith are the second pair, and they had a much better Game 7 than Game 6 against the Ducks. Smith, Jakub Kindl and Brian Lashoff are young, but they are growing up during this postseason. Veteran Carlo Colaiacovo dressed for the final two games of the first round, and Ian White is around if needed.
Anaheim pressured the Wings' defensemen, particularly the younger ones, into mistakes early in the first round, but as a group they were impressive in the final game.
During the Blackhawks' run to the Stanley Cup three years ago, Duncan Keith was a stalwart at both ends of the ice. In the first round against the Wild he turned in a vintage performance --scoring a goal, finishing with five points and posting a plus-5, tying him for the team lead.
Of the rest of the Chicago defensemen, only Johnny Oduya had a goal or more than one point in the series, but with the amount of firepower the Blackhawks possess up front, they don't need the blueliners to chip in much. Their job is to keep the puck out of their own net, and on that front the unit passes with flying colors.
In addition to Keith and Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson (also a plus-5), Brent Seabrook, Nick Leddy and Michal Rozsival were instrumental in the Hawks holding Wild captain Mikko Koivu scoreless, limiting Zach Parise to a single goal and completely blanking the Minnesota power play on 17 opportunities in the series.
Jimmy Howard is a workhorse, and the conference semifinals against the Blackhawks might go a long way toward determining just where he fits in the hierarchy of NHL goaltenders. He's clearly had to face tougher shots and better chances without players like Nicklas Lidstrom and Brad Stuart around. He was consistent against the Ducks, and a strong series against the Blackhawks could push him from contender to leading candidate to be considered one of the top three American-born goaltenders in the League right now.
If anything were to happen to Howard, however, the Red Wings would be in a tough spot. Backup Jonas Gustavsson last played a postseason game in 2009 -- with Farjestad in Sweden.
Corey Crawford and Ray Emery posted nearly identical regular-season statistics, but the question of who to start in the playoffs became moot when Emery sustained a lower-body injury.
Knowing he was the clear-cut No. 1 with no need to look over his shoulder if he let up a shaky goal, Crawford turned in the dominant type of performance the Blackhawks had been hoping for since he supplanted Antti Niemi as the starter following the 2010 Cup triumph. He allowed only seven goals in five games while standing tall in two pivotal overtime periods in Games 1 and 4.
Emery seems likely to dress at some point in the second round, but it will be as Crawford's backup. The Blackhawks will be even stronger once they know they have Emery as an option.
Mike Babcock is the best coach in the NHL.
Babcock has reached the Stanley Cup Final three times, winning once and losing the other two in Game 7. He's coached Canada to a gold medal in the Winter Olympics. He's reached at least the second round of the playoffs six of the past seven seasons.
His resume is beyond reproach. He's a no-nonsense guy and the players respond to him. Chicago's roster is loaded and Joel Quenneville is an elite NHL coach, but this is one place where the Wings will have an advantage, even if it is a slight one.
He hadn't won a playoff round in three years, but there was never any worry Joel Quenneville had lost his postseason touch. Quenneville pushed all the right buttons and found the matchups he wanted against the Wild, but perhaps the most telling moment came after the series had ended. Hardly in the mood to pat his players on the back for what they'd accomplished, Quenneville publicly challenged them to raise their play to an even higher level in the second round.
"I think it's good for everybody to get the taste of the playoffs," he said. "I think we still have to get a different type of pace to our game that's catching up to the other series that are being played and what the playoffs are all about."
The Red Wings scored six times on the power play against Anaheim, but three of those came in one game -- a 5-4 overtime victory in Game 2. Penalty killing was an issue at times in the series, though less as it advanced and fewer infractions were called. Detroit was a middle-of-the-pack team in both categories during the regular season.
The Blackhawks can't get any better than their 100-percent first-round success rate on the penalty kill. The power play, on the other hand, remains a concern. Chicago was 19th during the regular season at 16.7 percent, and went 2-for-13 in the first round to rank 11th among 16 playoff teams. This is an area where it would do wonders if Toews or Kane could pick up a couple goals.
Valtteri Filppula -- Filppula had one assist in the first five games against Anaheim, and while he added a second in Game 6, he also had a horrific turnover behind his net that started the Ducks' comeback. He had a strong Game 7 -- and now has six career points in Game 7s -- but the Red Wings will need a strong effort from him against the Blackhawks. It is one spot among the forwards where the Wings could have an advantage if its No. 2 center outplays Chicago's.
Jonathan Toews -- Toews is about one thing: winning. He'll gladly take another series of meager offensive numbers if it means Chicago can advance to the Western Conference Finals. But the 25-year-old center traditionally is a point-per-game threat who won the Conn Smythe in 2010 with 29 points on the Blackhawks' championship run. They become that much bigger of a threat to win another title if Toews finds the form that many feel should have made him a Hart Trophy candidate this season.
WHAT IF ...
The Red Wings will win if … Their young defensemen limit mistakes in the face of serious pressure, and Jimmy Howard is great in goal. If those things happen, Detroit's forwards can play with Chicago and the Red Wings could spring the upset against a team that could get bogged down by expectations.
The Blackhawks will win if … Corey Crawford continues to play like an elite netminder and they continue to get contributions from all four lines. Staying healthy also is a big factor. The Blackhawks basically were at full strength in the first round, with the exceptions of backup goalie Ray Emery and center Dave Bolland, who is ready to go and will reclaim his spot in the lineup.
Author: Brian Hunter and Corey Masisak | NHL.com Staff Writers
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