For the third year in a row, the Vancouver Canucks will be facing the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup playoffs. After two ignominious defeats in the second round, this year the Canucks will get the chance to exorcise their playoff demons in round one. The match-up is one the media, fans, and players have been eagerly anticipating, but it's not exactly a pure re-match.
The Blackhawks of 2010-11 are not the Blackhawks of 2009-10. Last season, the Blackhawks were just plain better than the Canucks. In the off-season, however, due to some mismanagement of the cap by Dale Tallon, the Hawks said farewell to much of their vaunted depth. Gone are Ben Eager, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, Brent Sopel, Colin Fraser, Adam Burish, John Madden and Canuck nemesis Dustin Byfuglien. Gone, too, are both goaltenders from last season. Playoff hero Antti Niemi signed with the San Jose Sharks while Cristobal Huet was sent to Switzerland to eat chocolate, wear pocket watches, and design knives.
There are a lot of new faces on the Blackhawks this season, including long-time rival Marty Turco, who is a shell of his former self. Goaltending duties will instead be handled by rookie Corey Crawford, who has performed admirably, posting a .918 SV% and a 2.27 GAA. Turco, on the other hand, has had a terrible year, posting career lows in save percentage and goals against average. Other new faces include Viktor Stalberg, acquired in the Versteeg trade with the Leafs, Michael Frolik, acquired from the Florida Panthers, and Ryan Johnson. Yes, that Ryan Johnson. Mr. Purple Shins is now sporting a Blackhawks jersey.
Still, the core of the team has remained intact despite the multitude of moves made around them. Toews, Kane, Sharp, and Hossa anchor a potent offence that finished 4th in the league in goals-for, just 4 goals behind the Canucks. They also boast the leading minute-muncher in the NHL in Duncan Keith, who averages almost 27 minutes per game. While he took a step back from last year's Norris-winning season, particularly defensively, he still put up 45 points. Meanwhile, his partner on defense, Brent Seabrook, surpassed him with a career high 48 points.
Honestly, I am shocked that the Blackhawks fell to 8th: I predicted they wouldn't and anticipated a potential second-round match-up against the Stanley Cup Champions, just for its poetic nature. The Blackhawks are too good a team to be the 8th seed. Their +33 goal differential is good for 7th in the NHL, 3rd in the Western Conference. Their first line is stupendous, their second line is dangerous, and their powerplay is potent. So what are they doing in 8th?
The issue, of course, is lack of depth. Their defense behind Keith, Seabrook, and Campbell is suspect. Their bottom-six is sketchy and often unreliable. These two issues combined explain their terrible penalty killing, which is 25th in the league.
As Harrison pointed out earlier this season, the depth players for the Blackhawks last season are making big contributions to their respective teams this season. Andrew Ladd was named captain in Atlanta and led the Thrashers in scoring. Second in team scoring was Dustin Byfuglien, who thrived on the opportunity to play defense again, finishing 4th in the NHL in points amongst defensemen. Kris Versteeg scored 46 points between the Leafs and the Flyers, Brent Sopel blocked 152 shots and led the Thrashers in shorthanded time-on-ice before being traded to the Canadiens, and John Madden led the Minnesota Wild in shorthanded time-on-ice amongst forwards. When you take away these quality players from the Blackhawks, they become a lesser team.
That's not to say that the Blackhawks will be easy to beat in round one of the playoffs; they are still a dangerous team, particularly on the powerplay. But the Canucks have been a dominant team all season, winning the President's Trophy while finishing first in both goals-for and goals-against. Which reminds me: there's one other big difference between last season's Blackhawks and this season's.
This year, the Blackhawks are the underdogs.