It’s come to this: finally. After a wait of several days – six for the Chicago Blackhawks, three for the Detroit Red Wings – it’s Game 1 of what should be a very entertaining Western Conference semifinal series.
So while we still have a few hours to kill, let’s look at a couple categories and try and size up the two teams, shall we?
GOALTENDING: Corey Crawford exorcised more than a few first-round demons with his convincing performances against the Minnesota Wild. The netminder was looking more like he did against Vancouver in April 2011 than Phoenix in April 2012, and he finally notched that postseason series victory. Jimmy Howard had his strong moments against the Anaheim Ducks, and he saved his best for Games 6 and 7, stopping 34 and 31 shots, respectively, in the Wings’ final two victories. But we must mention one wrinkle here: Crawford’s got a great career record vs. the Wings. Advantage: BLACKHAWKS
POWER PLAY: This one has been a hit-and-miss category for the Blackhawks. In the first round, it was mostly miss. While several teams have won the Cup without a stellar power play, the Blackhawks would still rather have it clicking. Detroit, meanwhile, used the advantage to their advantage against Anaheim, scoring six goals on 25 opportunities (24.0 percent). While they’ll face a tough penalty kill in the Blackhawks, there’s no doubt the Wings’ power play comes in hotter. Advantage: RED WINGS
PENALTY KILL: OK, the Wings’ power play did very well against Anaheim, but they’ll be facing a tougher kill with the Blackhawks, which nixed all 17 Minnesota Wild power plays in the first round. In turn, the Blackhawks will obviously be dealing with a better power play from the Wings, and with good discipline they can probably avoid it some. Detroit, meanwhile, allowed seven goals to the Ducks on 25 power plays. That’s not so good. Advantage: BLACKHAWKS
INTENSITY: The Blackhawks lacked this in the first round, and coach Joel Quenneville stated it almost on a nightly basis, including after they won Game 5 and eliminated the Wild. They’re more likely to have it against their longtime rivals, but they’ll need to light that fire fast. The Wings, meanwhile, are coming off an exhilarating seven-game series against the Ducks in which they needed that determination and intensity to get through. They may have more of it, at least to start, tomorrow night. Advantage: RED WINGS
LAYOFF: The Blackhawks have had time off. They’ve had a lot of time off. And entering Game 1 after all that time could be a detriment in one way: will there be rust? Possibly. But chances are that will go away fast. The Wings have had roughly three days but are coming off seven games and a lot of travel. They may be on an emotional high to start, but where will the gas-tank level be? And will they be feeling the effects after those first few adrenaline-filled minutes? Advantage: BLACKHAWKS
TOP PLAYERS: The Red Wings’ best were just that during the first round. Henrik Zetterberg has eight points in the first seven games, and Pavel Datsyuk is right behind him with seven. They’re two guys who the Blackhawks are going to have to defend tight and suppress. For the Blackhawks, Jonathan Toews didn’t get his first postseason points until Game 5 (two assists) and he and Patrick Kane are still looking for their first 2013 playoff goals (Kane does have five assists). But other Blackhawks have been just fine (Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa each have six points, five of Sharp’s being goals) and it’s just a matter of time before Toews and Kane start clicking. Advantage: EVEN
DEPTH: Yeah, remember what we just wrote about others scoring, if the top two guys weren’t, for the Blackhawks? That’s a reminder of this team’s depth, and it’s one very, very deep team. The Red Wings certainly have a strong roster, but it’s nothing like Chicago in this category. Advantage: BLACKHAWKS
WHO WINS: Yes, the Red Wings are steeped in tremendous postseason tradition; we’re talking two straight decades worth of playoff appearances. Their comeback against Anaheim was great, and they’ll play the Blackhawks much like they did all regular season: very close, with a lot of great defense and skill. They come in a hot team. But the Blackhawks just have too many weapons and too much depth. There’ll be more close games, though, which is why we’ll go with the Blackhawks in six games.