Well, we've been here before... and then again, we really haven't. We're again facing Vancouver, a team we've battled but ultimately owned two seasons in a row, mentally as much as physically. But this time some things are a bit different... while some are very much the ssame.
The past two years we were roughly comparable teams, in terms of regular season success and post-season expectations. This year the Canucks dominated all year, easily capturing the President's Trophy for best record in the NHL, while the Hawks absolutely back-doored their way into the playoff's final spot in the season's final game.
But yet, once again the mental edge seems to be with the Hawks. First off, we're the freakin Stanley Cup champions. It still feels good to say that and it still very much means something. Yes, a lot of guys from that team are gone, but a whole lot are still here, and that counts for a whole bunch. These guys have been through the fires and know they've got what it takes. In the epic battle that every NHL playoffs series is, that knowledge and confidence can make all the difference.
The Hawks also, oddly, have far less pressure on them. When does that happen - that you can claim an advantage in experience and accomplishment, but also in the lack of pressure and expectation? If the Hawks bow out in 5 games, whatever. The disappointment that is this season has already been suffered, especially after the loss to Detroit on Sunday. GM Stan and Coach Q made a bunch of glaring mistakes that all but assured this season wasn't gonna be a happy re-run of last year.
But Vancouver? They've already put together a long string of post-season let downs, largely blamed on their otherwise stellar netminder, Roberto Luongo, tho the Sedins, their coach, and really the entire team deserve plenty of the credit, too. Now, pretty much anything short of raising the Cup will probably mean just another lost season. Sure, if they make the Finals they can at least claim some sort of advancement. But this squad has been talked up since the off-season as the next big thing, as a clear Cup favorite, and they've only inflated that sentiment with their unquestionably great regular season.
Pretty much the last thing they could have wanted was to enter the most pressure-packed playoffs they've ever had and walk straight into the lion's den that is their greatest adversary and the still-talented Stanley Cup champs.
One thing I will say, and not that it will matter to us Hawks fans - if the Canucks can manage to get by the Hawks, it probably will be the best thing that could have happened to them. Getting that monkey off their back could give them the confidence and focus they need to finally elevate their playoff game to their potential. No other first round opponent can offer them so much of what they need on their quest.
So yeah, the extra pressure is on the Canucks. That means any early struggles will be magnified - a win in either game in Vancouver will bring out all the doubters. Clearly the early mental edge is also with the Hawks, who've got the crown and have twice dispatched Vancouver. But off-setting that a bit is the fact that the bigger carrot lies with the Canucks - a series victory here could be the final piece to their championship puzzle.
On the flipside, while dispatching the Canucks would return a bit of the swagger and confidence this Hawks team has been missing since so many of their teammates left town, once you've won the Cup, there aren't that many more moral victories. Sure, if they do win a series or two they can hang their hats on that as they again retool this off-season and look to return to contender status next year.
But that's not exactly a sentiment you can rally the troops around in the lockerroom. Instead, anything short of a Cup just isn't that motivating, so really, this is just one series in a long slog for the Hawks. An important one, as they all are, but w/o that little extra inspiration that the Canucks will likely have.
So what does this all mean? Pretty much nothing. The simple fact is that both teams have some intangible edges and disadvantages going into this series, so it's not clear who can claim a real leg up in that department. The good news from the Hawks perspective is that a mental/emotional edge does in fact exist for them to overcome the talent and execution gap they're facing. We just have to hope it plays out that way.
As for the talent gap - how big is it? Well, the Canucks roll out two different 40-goal scorers this year... and neither is the guy who won the league MVP and scoring title last season. The Sedin Twins were as murderous as ever this year - Daniel with 41 G and 104 points, Henrik with 75 A and 94 points. Ryan Kesler went from good to great, adding 41 G to a game that already included incredible defense and great work in the face-off dot.
And that's definitely not all - Samuelson, Burrows, and Raymond are all names that you'll expect to hear getting points this series. Raffi Torres, a newcomer, brings some necessary grit. One unfortunate situation but good break for the Hawks - checking centerman Manny Malhotra had a serious eye injury that will keep him out. A blow, certainly, but not one they can't overcome.
Don't let all those weapons make you think this team is all O. Much like the Hawks of yore, they combine a high-energy, go-go-go offense with good goaltending and a deep defense. Luongo had another great season behind a D that includes break-out star Christian Ehrhoff, minutes leader Alexander Edler, and solid veteran grinders like Hamhuis (picked up this off-season), Bieksa, and Salo.
What does it all mean? It means the Canucks have the talent in all facets of the game to win. Not just this series, but the whole thing. Their President's Trophy was no fluke - they've built on the solid foundation they had in the past to become that much closer to a title. But will it be enough? As always, it's not about past success, regular season performance, or how you look on paper. It's about stepping up when it matters. Getting contributions from top to bottom. Keeping your head, heart, and body full into each and every shift.
Can the Canucks do that? Who knows. Their coach, star forwards, and goaltender have all been shown wanting. Sure, every champion could have said much the same thing until they broke through, so maybe this is when they do. But remember, this is the NHL. You expect every single series to go 6 games. You don't find any "upset" to be that great of a shocker. President's Trophy winners lose in the first round all the time. 8 seeds advance through multiple rounds a lot.
The Canucks are assured of nothing and our Hawks, with the core of talent they still have, can be every bit as confident of their chances as any team out there right now. But know that they do face a heck of a challenge here. This Canucks team will require everything the Hawks have.
One thing that meant a lot to me - how outwardly excited JQ was about making it into the playoffs. I would have guessed that he'd be dour about the way they got in, still disappointed that they were in that position. I'd have figured he'd quietly talk about the challenges ahead and the need to get better.
Instead, he expressed giddiness. Yeah, stoic Quenneville said he was giddy after he saw Dallas blow that game to Minnesota. I'm seeing only one reason - because Coach Q knows damn well that he can get his troops past these Canucks. Not that it's just a possibility, but that he believes it's likely. When you're the Cup Champions, you're not giddy to just make it into the playoffs with some vague hope. You're giddy because you know that you've gotten in with a legit chance to do something special again.
I think Q fully believes that the Canucks are the exact team the Hawks needed to face. Their style of play (wide open), their mental and physical fragility, their reliance on their top line and a mentally suspect goaltender, and of course, the history between these teams. I'm guessing that JQ sees all of that and truly thinks that his team will get past these guys yet again.
Could he be right? Well, just the fact that he thinks that has me very confident - coaches generally don't feel that way, not in a giddy sense that requires that much confidence. It tells me the inside view is that this match-up favors the Hawks, as least as much as this version of the Hawks could have hoped. And as I just detailed - it makes a lot of sense, given the holes you can poke in the Canucks.
But what about the Hawks? As ripe as the Canucks might be for a takedown, as perfect as they might align with this Hawks team, we still need to have the guns to win what is always going to be a hard-fought 6- or 7-game series. Do we have it in us with the roster as constructed, given its current health?
To me, that's one of the big questions - how healthy are we. There are the obvious issues of Bolland and Brouwer - when will they return, what can we expect of them? Slightly less obvious are guys like Sharp and Hossa - guys who've fought recent injuries and who, if fully healthy, can be major impact types. Even less obvious are guys like Keith and Seabrook, whose games haven't been up to par all season long, possibly because they were overtaxed last year, with their Olympic and Cup run.
One thing I'll hang my hat on - these guys have all been there before, they know what it takes and what the payoff is. Sure, there's some level of physical health you can't do anything about - i.e. what level Brouwer and Bolland need to get to in order to lace em up and play regular minutes. But there's also a level of physical health that has a lot to do with the mental side of things. I have faith that this whole list of guys is gonna exact every bit of effort out of their bodies that can physically be done. They understand how to play through pain and what it can mean when you do. And that gives me faith that our health won't be a major detraction.
So that leads us just to the talent level and how Q is gonna use it. If healthy, I think we've definitely got the talent to win any series. Like last year, we've got the four big scoring options we need in Toews, Kane, Hossa, and Sharp. Like last year, Bolland and Johnson give us the necessary defensive center depth. Like last year, Keith, Seabrook, Campbell, Hammer, and Campioli give us the 5 reliable blueliners you need. Finally, like last year we've got a goalie in net capable of stealing wins and making leads hold up, who's shown himself capable of the heat.
But, just like last year, there are three major questions to be answered. #1 is health - as discussed, we need Brouwer and Bolland to come back healthy and the other guys to be near full-go, and, of course, to remain so. #2 is the defense - like last year, Seabrook and Keith showed a lot of signs in the regular season of less than the dominant play we've come to expect (and most certainly can't live without). Hopefully, like last year they can elevate when it matters most. Similarly, Campbell, The Hammer, and Campioli need to provide big support minutes, as those first two and Sopel did last season. And Leddy needs his minutes to be very minimal, used in a way that doesn't hurt us while buying a bit of a breather for the Top 5.
Finally, #3, and the only one I really have any major concern about, is that we have to find the complimentary pieces to our big scorers and defensive centers. It's easy to forget last year that it wasn't at all clear how guys like Ladd, Brouwer, Versteeg, Buff, Kopecky, and even Bickell would align. Buff was on D, Kopecky was mainly a 4th liner, Bickell was an unproven nobody, Brouwer was inconsistent as always, and Versteeg was maddening as ever.
In the end it all worked out - JQ seemed to either make the right choices or quickly fix the wrong ones. Everybody found a way to contribute and rarely were line configurations a major issue. Can JQ do that again? So far this year he's struggled mightily. Some of it is on Stan, who didn't give him the right pieces. I'll have more on that in the off-season, but I'm most definitely not sold on his ability to build a winner. I'll give him another crack or two at it, but this year, I think Stan failed pretty much across the board in building the forwards around his key core guys.
For now tho, JQ has to play with the hand he was dealt, and I'm not thrilled by how he's done it thus far. Kopecky? A perfect 4th liner - he's got the energy, size/physicality, and even brings a bit of scoring touch. He accepts the role and thrives in it. But he's shown, chance after chance, that he just brings nothing to the top lines. Kopecky isn't an asset up there and after two years, it's time Q accepts that.
Stalberg - I think he's a real talent, but like Versteeg, his head isn't always there. However, like Versteeg, he's got rare talents that it's on Q to cultivate - burying him on the 4th line with limited minutes kept Stalberg from getting the experience he needed to grow through those mental letdowns. Unfortunately, now Q can't go back - Stalberg doesn't have it to play with the top guys and he can't be allowed to learn on the job now. Good news is that he's turned himself into a very valuable 4th liner, an asset the Hawks have exploited in their last two post-seasons.
Now that we've filled the 4th line quite well, what about the two wingers necessary on the top lines, and the two guys who need to skate alongside Bolland on the ever-important checking line? Last year Ladd's great advantage was that you could put him on any line and know you'd be fine there. To me, that guy this year is Brouwer. You can argue that his scoring has been inconsistent, but to me it's pretty clear - when he's up with Toews and Kane, he gets it done. Put him on the third line, he's not gonna score. That's just who he is. But, like Ladd, I feel confident with Brouwer either as strong defensive checking line guy or a complimentary scoring line go.
What do we do with him (whenever he's ready to go - might not be for a game or two)? Tough call. Some of me says he's the best complimentary scorer we have, so get him up with Toews and Kane. Some of me says we're hurting on checkers and need his plus play there, so put him with Bolland. I honestly can't say what'd be best.
One thing that is giving me a bit of confidence - Ben Smith and Frolik have looked pretty solidly of late. Some of it has been being joined with Kane, who's really been putting in full effort down the stretch. Kane is just the type of guy to make anyone better when he's got it going. But some of it is both guys fitting a bit of what the Hawks need. Frolik hasn't had the numbers, but he clearly is a solid offensive player who works hard. And Smith just seems to do a lot of the little things. I can't say I'm sure how best to use these two, but I think they also offer some flexibility.
Maybe one can be on a checking line, if their two counterparts are fully caable. With Bolland's offensive skill, if you can get him a decent playmaker to skate with, that line becomes a source for some offense (as it was last year w/ Versteeg and the year before w/ Havlat). Maybe that playmaker is Frolik. Joined with Bolland and Brouwer, maybe they can handle the Sedins and provide a bit of punch the other way. I can't insist this is the case, but I like that JQ's got the possibility to play with.
Bickell? Not exactly sure what to make of him, but sort of seems like Brouwer, maybe just not as accomplished yet. He's skated a lot as a checker and done OK, while his 17 G and 20 A show he's capable with the stick. Throw in a +6 and you can see how he might be a nice piece on any line. He even got a little taste of the playoffs last year to put some experience under his belt. You need random support guys to step up (like Buff did in certain series the past two years) - why can't it be a Bickell?
Finally, two guys I hope to see glued to the press box are Pisani and Dowell. Neither seems to really bring anything of any impact. I guess I'm maybe a little happy to have both around, given that Brouwer and Bolland may not be back. But it's disappointing that neither could turn themselves into a capable enough grinder that I have any excitement about using them on the third line. Ideally you'd like them to be able to form a checking line (maybe with Bickell?) until B&B come back, but that's a lot of minutes for a bunch of blah guys who aren't clearly plus defensive skaters.
Ultimately, all of these support forwards are what I'm putting this series on. Sure there are some questions about our studs being studs, our D being solid, and their guys finally figuring it out. But I've got enough faith that enough will break out way in those things that we can win this series. What I'm not sure about is whether our third line can be that shutdown group necessary to contain a team like Vancouver. Can Bolland get back and effective quickly enough? Can we find him two quality supporting players. And until he is back, can we find others to get the job done?
You've worked your way through a heck of a long post here (can you tell I missed writing these?) - in the end, those three questions right there are what I believe this entire series will hinge on. If we can get positive enough answers from those questions, I say we pull off the upset. If not, it'll be just one more disappointing chapter in a season filled with them.
Me - I think we can do it. Hawks in 7.
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