It is not hard to imagine that this years playoffs and the Blackhawks 1st round series could have been quite different if it were not for the Vancouver Canucks embarrasing the Blackhawks into re-evaluating how they were playing.
Certainly the return of Patrick Sharp and the defense finally getting healthy didn't hurt and neither did Nikolai Khabibulin's return to form but it has been a drastic turnaround from a team slumping looking destined to get bounced out of the playoffs first round to going 6-0-1 in April and 9-2-1 since March 22.
The Flames made the biggest free agent splash at the trade deadline and many people, (me included) thought this team had the right mix of players to make a real run. Well they may have all the ingredients but they cannot seem to find the recipe, Olli Jokinen has been a disappointment so far, Jarome Iginla has struggled at times, as has their goalie Miikka Kiprusoff.
The pressure and expectation in Calgary is very real for a city that has been close before and the thought is that this roster is of contention calibre but the team has a recent history of faltering in the post season.
What to Expect from the Flames
The Flames are a physical team and will play the Blackhawks tough for two reasons: the first being that a young team is often surprised by the intensity in the playoffs, how many no-calls, the pressure, and either take retaliation penalties or just disappear. The second is the Blackhawks are a smaller skilled team and the consensus way to beat them is grind it out slow them down keep the skill guys in check.
*Note* The last couple of years this style has landed the Flames in penalty trouble more often than not as playing a tough style discipline is that much more important.
What to Expect from the Blackhawks
The Hawks are a skilled team and will try to open the game up from the back lead by offensive defenseman like Duncan Keith and Brian Campbell the Blackhawks will try to use their team speed and create odd man chances and capitalize; or create powerplay chances. Interesting to see how the Hawks react to the playoff atmosphere opponents have tried all season to slow the Hawks down with tough, physical play but the intesity this time will be a new experience.
Olli Jokinen Vs Jonathan Toews
The two top line centre-man both playing in their first post season series will be asked to anchor the top line and centre first line power play units. Jonathan Toews has really come on of late whereas Olli has not but the slate is wiped clean. Personally I like Toews as in Juniour maybe no player before him has been asked to do more in pressure situations and succeeded.
Miika Kiprusoff vs Nikolai Khabibulin
The goaltending battle is always interesting and will be a real key to this series. The pressure is on Miika Kiprusoff who really does not have a viable back-up and comes into the series having played 60+ games this season. Khabby comes in fresh and healthy having platooned the position with Huet most of the year and is out to prove he has something left.
Experience vs Youth
Almost every head-to-head match-up, you can think of in this one has the Flames and their experience against the youth and in-experience of the Blackhawks which one wins out will be an interesting subplot to this series.
The Blackhawks take this series in six games, the Flames do not have the team speed to keep the Hawks in check and I like Khabby over Kipper as 60+ games is just too many, the Flames saying Kipper is not tired is one thing and reality maybe another. Plus even without home ice and the six seed the Flames come in with all the pressure and expectation – it has broken them before and will again…
About the Author
Written by Terry Shilton