As you may have guessed from the other entry on my blog, I am a San Jose Sharks fan. I have followed the Sharks since I started following hockey. This year has been amazing so far and I cannot see what is stopping the Sharks from finally getting the Cup.
Of course the Red Wings are going to be tough. The defending champions are still solid enough to make it back to the Cup Finals despite Chris Osgood's struggles. The team that is really getting me nervous though is the Blackhawks.
Everyone who follows hockey knows about the talent the 'Hawks have in Patrick Kane, Jonathan Towes, Patrick Sharp, and Brian Campbell. It's the others that are making it more and more likely that the 'Hawks are serious contenders this year. Martin Havlat is on pace for his best point production since the 03-04 season, which was his career high. Kris Versteeg is having a breakout season in his first full NHL campaign. Dave Bolland is on pace to have more goals this year than he had points last year.
The biggest, and probably most underrated key is the 36 year old Nikolai Khabibulin. Khabibulin has been nothing short of amazing this year. He has become the #1 netminder in Chicago since Cristobal Huet's struggles earlier on this year. Without Khabibulin, the 'Hawks are more than likely back with the pack that's fighting for the 6-8 spots in the West. Instead, they are firmly in the 4 spot, 7 points ahead of their current first round opponent Anaheim. With a mere 11 points separating 5th from 15th in the West, this can (and will) change on a daily basis.
Do the 'Hawks have what it takes to make a deep run? That's the $64,000 question. Barring any major injuries between now and April, I can't see them not making it out of the first round. Minnesota has had trouble with their offense at times this year, Dallas has the worst PP% and second worst PK% of the current top 8 teams in the West, and Vancouver's fortunes rest on the Sedins and Luongo. Anaheim seems to be the only real threat that the 'Hawks could face, but their schedule could work against them. 13 of their final 25 games are against current playoff teams. Of those other 12, 7 are against teams who are currently three points of less from a playoff spot.
Assuming Detroit and Calgary hold their spots and get out of the first round, that would leave a Sharks/'Hawks second round matchup. On paper, the Sharks look to be the stronger team, but as they always like to say, the games aren't played on paper. Let's go position by position and stack the two teams up.
Goaltender is a wash. Nabokov and Boucher are pretty even with Huet and Khabibulin. I know that other Sharks fans won't see it that way, but it's true. When push comes to shove, both teams have two goaltenders that they can count on to make the big save at key points in the game.
On the blueline, I would have to give the slight edge to San Jose. Blake and Boyle have been the rockstars for the Sharks all season. Vlasic and Erhoff have been solid and Murray always has the other teams forwards playing with their heads up. For Chicago, Campbell is the stud that the Sharks traded for at the deadline last year. Keith and Seabrook are becoming elite D-Men in the NHL. Cam Barker is doing his best to win the Calder this year as well. Where the Sharks get the edge though is the depth. In the playoffs, coaches love to have 7 or 8 defensemen to fall back on. The play of Staubitz and Joslin this year for the Sharks give them the depth options that cup winning teams need.
Forward is what scares me. At first glance you would give the edge to San Jose hands down. However, the Sharks third line has been a work in progress ever since Torrey Mitchell broke his leg in training camp. Roenick's shoulder injury hasn't helped either. Cheechoo seems to be the only consistent performer there, and now that Goc will be possibly missing time with an injury, the shuffling continues. Time is running out on the Sharks to get a solid third line together and playing on the same page before the playoffs.
If the 'Hawks get more production and quality minutes out of their third line, they will win the series. It pains me to say that, but I have to be objective here. If the Sharks can find the magic formula for their third line in time, a Western Conference Final matchup with Detroit looks possible. If not, another second round exit looms again.