The San Jose Sharks and the Chicago Blackhawks were the two best teams in the Western Conference throughout the entire 2009-2010 season. While both have faced challenge in their respective first round match ups in these 2010 playoffs, both then went on to have strong second round and find themselves blazing heading into their Western Conference Final match. For Chicago, it will be their second consecutive Conference Final. For San Jose, it will be their second Conference Final in team history. Neither wants to repeat what happened to them in their previous appearance, so who has the edge?
The San Jose Sharks headed into the postseason with question marks regarding how well they could perform in the postseason following their first round exit at the hands of Anaheim back in 2009. After their first three games against first round opponent Colorado, culminating with Dan Boyle’s overtime own goal to give Colorado a 2-1 series lead, those questions seemed to of been answered with laughs and jeers at the Sharks expense. However, since that own goal, the Sharks have completely turned around, outscoring their opponents 26-13 in their following 7 wins, destroying the Avalanche in Games 4, 5 and 6 and defeating Detroit in 5 games. In the Detroit series specifically, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, criticized in the past for becoming non-existent in playoff games, both had significant impacts and each score very critical goals in the first few games of that series. The Sharks’ playoff MVP is still Joe Pavelski. He and line mate Devin Setoguchi have combined to score 14 goals for the Sharks in this postseason and without their efforts San Jose would not have made it this far.
Detroit did have one successful game against the Sharks, and that was in Game 4 where they won 7-1 to avoid elimination for one game. That game, in which Johan Franzen had 4 goals and was mistakenly credited with a 5th for awhile, could be used as a blueprint for Chicago to find a weakness within San Jose’s defense and goaltending. Franzen’s ticket to fame is how well he plays when he crashes the net and takes advantage of opportunities when he’s standing right next to the goaltender. Chicago has a player in Dustin Byfuglien, who gained some notoriety in the Vancouver series, who can do just that. With Byfuglien finding an offensive groove, the Blackhawks will need to rely on him to add another dimension to their offense and cross up San Jose and its goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, especially early on in games. Chicago’s offense is led by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, both of whom are among the team leader’s in goals and assists. Marian Hossa has had his share of assists this postseason, but with just two goals he hasn’t had the playoff impact many in Chicago had been hoping for.
Chicago is not without criticism aside from Hossa, most notably in having an apparent lack of effort at times, which was particularly evident in their Game 5 loss to Vancouver and even their Game 1 loss to Vancouver as well. Chicago may very well be a better team than San Jose but they have trouble being such on a consistent basis. Antti Niemi has not been one of the best goaltenders in these 2010 playoffs but too much has not been asked of him with Chicago’s explosive offense; he has only had to make a key save here and there while Chicago’s offense does the rest.
Overall, neither team has a distinct advantage in any one category. Both teams have strong offenses, though Chicago’s offense is somewhat stronger. San Jose has a stronger defense to offset that, while Evgeni Nabokov has more playoff experience than Niemi, though not necessarily the best kind of experience. Both have had a successful power play the first two rounds while both have had solid penalty kills. From the slight defensive advantage alone one might give the Sharks the edge here.
However, this is Chicago’s second consecutive Conference Final and they must’ve learned quite a bit from their last one, a five game loss to Detroit. San Jose seemed rather happy to get by Detroit, and more specifically get by the second round, so there might be a chance that they could be happy to make it just to the Conference Finals even though their goal this year is to win the Stanley Cup.
From this alone, I give the edge to the Chicago Blackhawks. Chicago wins in 6 games.
Source for statistics:
ESPN, Team Statistics, ESPN.com