Series Preview: Chicago Blackhawks (4) vs. Calgary Flames (5)

Our previews of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs' opening round, featuring pretty pictures and a special guest video by the great Steve Dangle at the end.

It's been eight long years since the Chicago Blackhawks have been playing hockey deep into April. Rocky Wirtz and John McDonough have changed the entire culture surrounding the franchise. Gone are the days of Rocky's father "Dollar Bill" Wirtz. Now, the Blackhawks aren't afraid to spend, or overspend (see: Campbell, Brian), on free agents or be seen on television.

Currently in a franchise renaissance, Chicago isn't just happy to be in the playoffs after a long absence. The Hawks have been consistently towards the top half of the Western Conference all year long; whatever head coach Joel Quenneville instilled in his players, after he took over after the team's fourth game of the season, has worked.

For the Calgary Flames, they came within one game of taking home the Stanley Cup back in 2004 and haven't been past the first round since. Widely considered the trade deadline winners after picking up Olli Jokinen from Phoenix; but after a quick start, Calgary has struggled.

In the span of a month, the talk about the Flames has gone from a potential Stanley Cup parade to where Mike Cammalleri will sign over the summer. After having a 13-point lead on the Vancouver Canucks in the Northwest Division, the Flames were besieged by injuries and lost their hold on the title. Things got so bad that Calgary had to play the final five games of the season missing between one and three players due to injuries and unable to fill their lineup due to salary cap restrictions.

Two teams heading in different directions; one revigorated after exorcising some demons of their past. The other, trying to recapture the chemistry that they had after the trade deadline and with a large gorilla hanging on their back.

Season Series (Blackhawks win 4-0)

Nov 9: at Chicago 6, Calgary 1
Dec 19: Chicago 3, at Calgary 2 OT
Jan 4: at Chicago 5, Calgary 2
Feb 5: Chicago 5, at Calgary 2

Forwards (Advantage: Even)

Youth is being served in Chicago. A strong core has been built that will make sure the Blackhawks are playoff-bound for the next handful of springs. A healthy (I know, crazy!) Martin Havlat took time off from faith healing and had a career season in assists (48) and points (77). Patrick Kane and captain Jonathan Toews are the dynamic duo that put the wheels in motion for Chicago's turnaround. Kris Versteeg opened some eyes during his first full season in Chicago; and like the Blackhawks themselves, Patrick Sharp is enjoying a career revival. Despite not scoring on a penalty-kill this season, Sharp has shown he can be dangerous while shorthanded.

Getting career seasons from Curtis Glencross (40 points), David Moss (20 goals), and Rene Bourque (21 goals before he was injured) added to the scoring depth the Flames possess. Olli Jokinen was playing like a bat out of hell once he got as far away from Phoenix, scoring eight goals in his first six games with Calgary. He now enters his first NHL playoff experience on a 13-game goalless streak, having not scored since his hat trick against Toronto on March 14.

Mike Cammalleri and Jarome Iginla will be the usual scoring suspects, but can their offensive production follow them into the postseason?

Defensemen (Advantage: Even)

If you want to move the puck up the ice quickly, then Chicago's blue liners can get that job done with ease. Brian Campbell and Duncan Keith are two of the smoothest skaters around. Keith is coming into his own and is developing into one of the best young defenseman in the league. His plus-33 rating led all defensemen and was eight in the League with an average of 25:34 of ice time a night. The supporting cast of Cam Barker (40 points), Brent Seabrook (23:19 of ice time), and Matt Walker (79 PIM's) also add some toughness to protect the space around Nikolai Khabibulin.

Maybe Sean Avery's "sloppy seconds" comments got to Dion Phaneuf? The Edmonton native took a step back this season with career lows in goals (11), points (47), plus/minus (-11), and power-play goals (4), despite leading all defensemen in power-play ice time (445:52). Fourth in the NHL with a 83.4-percent  penalty-kill rate thanks to the defensively minded Robyn Regehr and Cory Sarich, the Flames counter with the likes of Adrian Aucoin (10 goals, 34 points) and Jordon Leopold (7 goals, 24 points) on the offensive end.

Goalies (Advantage: Even)

When Cristobal Huet left Washington, many assumed that was the end of Nikolai Khabibulin Time in Chicago. Many joined the bandwagon after Martin Brodeur went down with an arm injury, thinking he would be dealt to New Jersey to sure up their goaltending "issue" at the time. A 25-8-7 record later, the "‘Bulin Wall" has wrestled the starting job away from Huet and heads into the playoffs on a roll winning 8 of his last 10. Huet will provide valuable depth at the position, but has played inconsistently down the stretch.

Conventional wisdom would have you believe that since Curtis McElhinney is on a one-game winning streak, and Miikka Kiprusoff has allowed six goals and lost both of his last two starts, 'Iron' Mike Keenan would go with the hot hand.  Nevertheless, Keenan is going with his workhorse in Kiprusoff and hoping that he'll be able to win a playoff series; something he hasn't done since Calgary's Stanley Cup run in 2004.

Leading the league with 45 wins and reaching the 40-plus win plateau for the third time in his career, Kiprusoff will again face the questions about being overworked should he falter early in the series.

If This Series Was a Movie, It Would Be ...

They send one ours to the hospital, we send one of theirs to the morgue.

(By B.D. Gallof of Islanders Independent.)

Power Play (Advantage: Chicago)

A ho-hum power-play unit that ranked 12th in the League at 19.3 percent, Chicago had the third-most chances with the extra man with 363; unless you have a penalty-kill that is full of the fat guys from NES Hockey, then you have a good chance at being successful.

Calgary's unit with the extra man has been all sorts of wackiness. Allowing a league-high 15 shorthanded goals, the Flames ranked 21st in the NHL with a 17 percent success-rate.

Penalty Kill (Advantage: Calgary)

Adding super-defensive forward Samuel Pahlsson at the trade deadline helped boost a sagging Chicago penalty kill that was 18th in the NHL at 80.6 percent but seventh overall with 10 short-handed goals.

The Flames have been able to balance their lack of success on the power play with the League's fourth-best penalty-kill (83.4 percent). 

Fight We'd Love To See

Can we hope that this series gets testy enough that we see a captain's brawl between Jarome Iginla and Jonathan Toews? That'd turn things up a notch.

Otherwise, seeing Eric Nystrom attempt to get revenge on Adam Burish for his knockout would be fun.

Coaches (Advantage: Chicago)

Since replacing Denis Savard after the first four games of the season, Joel Quenneville has gained the trust of his players and led them to a playoff appearance. It's likely the Blackhawks would have qualified under Denis Savard based on the amount of talent in the lineup, but Quenneville's playoff experience (87 games) is what will help guide his young team in the postseason.

He may be a name-brand head coach, but Mike Keenan coached exactly seven playoffs games since he was behind the bench in St. Louis during the 1995-96 season. He failed in Vancouver. He failed in Boston. And he failed in Florida. His strict, disciplinarian tactics just do not mesh with today's player. There's a reason he hasn't lasted more than four seasons with any single team he's ever coached.

Best Player Nicknames (Advantage: Chicago)

Dustin Byfuglien is "Big Buff," not to be mistaken with former WCW wrestling Buff Bagwell. Brian Campbell is given the tired "Soupy" nickname given to anyone with the same last name, no matter if they play sports or not. "The Bulin Wall" has always been a fan and broadcaster favorite (at least when he's playing well).

Iggy Pop is hip with the kids. Big Bert causes nightmares. Kipper is just lazy. What happened to the good ole days of creative nicknames like "3 Finger", "Boom Boom", or "The Duke of Padocah"?

Home Ice (Advantage: Even)

Both have been solid at home. Chicago (24-9-8) and Calgary (27-10-4) will want to keep that going in the playoffs, especially the Flames who were 19-20-2 on the road. Winning that first game will be incredibly important for Calgary.

Essential Blogging

Windy City folks should definitely add Second City Hockey to their daily reading. Follow Adam Burish's blog via the Chicago Sun Times Web site and there's always Mouthpiece Sports featuring the foxy Sarah Spain.

Kent keeps things up-to-date at Matchsticks and Gasoline. The Battle of Alberta is always a fun read and Flames Nation is your source for the snark.

Captains (Advantage: Calgary)

"If Jarome Iginla had been captain of the Titanic, he would have talked about the great start to the voyage, how everyone came together and gave his all, even that refreshing dip in the Atlantic, which is something the team can learn from." Allan Maki, Globe and Mail.

That being said, Iginla feels that this is his best shot to win a Stanley Cup.

There's no doubt that Jonathan Toews will become a fantastic captain for the Blackhawks franchise, but when you're facing off against one the NHL's best leaders on and off the ice, it's tough to win that battle.

Pests (Advantage: Calgary)

Ben Eager is that kid in gym class who'd keep pegging people even after everyone was eliminated in dodge ball. He gets under opponents skin and won't stop. Adam Burish is a skilled expert in the art of agitation.

Dion Phaneuf isn't afraid to run someone and then stand up for himself. Cory Sarich (100 PIM) and Jim Vandermeer (108 PIM) have no problem finding trouble. When not being praised by Don Cherry, Eric Nystrom can be found dropping the gloves and finding himself in the middle of post-whistle scrums.

Potential Unsung Heroes 

Kris Versteeg has been a nice story so far. Wouldn't he be a nice fit in the Boston Bruins lineup had they not dealt him for Brandon Bochenski?

Craig Conroy is a sentimental pick and was a big offensive component during the '04 Cup run (6 goals, 17 points). A few big-time goals or game-winners could put David Moss into another level. 

Prediction: Blackhawks in six.

Some teams limp into the post-season, but Calgary is crawling. Olli Jokinen hasn't done anything since mid-March and the chemistry between he and Jarome Iginla and Mike Cammalleri has vanished. The power play isn't scaring anyone. And Miikka Kiprusoff could be hit with the "Are you overworked?" questions if he struggles early on.

Chicago is still a bit green to make a real shot at the Stanley Cup, but they have enough offensive weapons to overpower the Flames. Can Nikolai Khabibulin rekindle the playoff magic he discovered in 2004 with Tampa Bay? 

Take It Away YouTube Superstar Steve Dangle!

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