Chicago Blackhawks head back to the UC with a 2-0 edge over the San Jose Sharks
The question going into the third round for the Western Conference final was who was going to come out on top after the first two games: the Chicago Blackhawks, with their outstanding record in playoffs road wins, or the San Jose Sharks, defending an at-home record? Or would they split the opening two games?
We know the answer now, of course: the Blackhawks now lead the series 2-0 and are headed back to the UC in Chicago for game 3 on Friday night.
Sunday's game was all that a fan could want out of a playoff game. It was fast-paced, strong, thrilling; a tight 2-1 victory, with a standout performance by the goalies at both end of the ice. But it was Tuesday's game that was a little more uneven, with the Blackhawks taking a decisive 4-2 second win on the road.
Going into this series, there were a lot of questions on both sides of the conference.
For the Sharks, it was: Will the Sharks choke again? And can we see the same kind of performances we just saw in rounds 1 and 2?
I won't even begin to claim I know the Sharks well, but they certainly put up an outstanding record this year, and if it wasn't for just one extra win or loss, either by San Jose or Chicago, the teams' final Western Conference rankings of 1st and 2nd would've been reversed. This is the kind of Conference final you really want to see: the two top teams duking it out for the right to go onto the Cup round. These are the kinds of teams you want to see in that position: both strong, deep, fast. And, for that extra bit of dramatic flair, the extra bonus: one team that's never won the Cup in its franchise history, and one that hasn't won the Cup in more than twice as many years as the other team has even been in existance (that's 49 years, in case you've been living under a rock; vs. 19 for the other guys).
Anybody who thought that this series wouldn't be one for the history books - no matter what way it ends up - really hasn't been a hockey fan all that long. Although the two teams acknowledged there really wasn't an existing "rivalry" between them going into the series, there is no doubt that there will be one in the future and it will be able to trace its roots to this series.
The Sharks have a lot of talent, and a lot of desire, on their team. San Jose has never won a Cup - heck, they've never even been to the Final Round. So clearly, they would like to go as far as they possibly can. Their team got hot at the right time, and they have battled hard through the playoffs thus far, putting away both the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings.
But standing in their way are the Chicago Blackhawks, who also very badly want to bring hockey's most revered trophy home to the Windy City.
Before the playoffs, the Blackhawks, too, faced a lot of questions: Did they have a goalie who could bring them deep in the playoffs? Could the team be consistent enough to win?
The first round of games against Nashville had fans clutching for stomach antacids as the Blackhawks stumbled against what was perhaps one of the most underestimated teams to make the playoffs, the Nashville Predators. The series started off with an ugly loss at the UC, and the Blackhawks had to fight hard for every win. The first round swung back and forth like a pendulum, before an incredible game 5 at home in Chicago wowed fans and critics alike, and renewed faith in the possibilities of this year's playoffs. Patrick Kane nailed the game-tying goal with mere seconds left in the game, and Marian Hossa redeemed himself for a 5-minute-major by winning the game barely 10 seconds out of the penalty box.
Vancouver was another hard-fought series, as many thought that the Canucks were one of the best matchups for Chicago. Again, Chicago stumbled off the starting blocks at home, losing 1-5, before rallying to take enough games - and take them decisively - to win the series.
Along the way, Blackhawks goaltender Antti Niemi has proven that you don't need prior playoff experience to go deep. Although several rookie goalies started for their teams across the NHL this playoff season, perhaps no other goalie took as much criticism. Who was the guy, a virtual unknown, who had supplanted the Blackhawks highly-paid Huet, to win the starting position? Part of the reason was that fans and critics alike have had such sky-high expectations for the Hawks. Chicago sports fans know better than to get too excited about their teams heading into the playoffs - be it hockey, baseball, or football.
But Niemi has faced it all, keeping his team in the game through the sloppy first series, and standing tall versus Olympic gold medalist Roberto Luongo. He was the first goalie to rack up two shutouts - both in the first round - and on Sunday, he put on a stellar performance that goalies with far more experience would have been proud to call their own.
And while the Blackhawks were definitely inconsistent in the games against Nashville, they came out strong against Vancouver, and even stronger against the Sharks, picking up the first two victories for round 3 in the Shark Tank.
Fortunately for Chicago fans, the team seems to have gotten a serious wakeup call in the form of round 2, game 5, a painful home loss against the Canucks. Since that game, the Blackhawks have been clearly focused on playing their games one at a time, instead of looking down the road to June.
You can see it in their faces and their voices as they have given interviews over the past week. You think the fans want that gleaming silver trophy? They can't possibly want it more than the players want it - and these are players who realize it is in their grasp, and in their own control, to make their way to those final seven games.
The Sharks certainly aren't going to go quietly. They're going to take reassurance from what the Philadelphia Flyers just did to the Boston Bruins, returning from a 0-3 deficit to emerge victors in round 2. Each game - be it at the UC or the HP Pavillion (Shark Tank) are going to keep getting stronger, bigger, badder, meaner. They're going to head into Chicago on Friday and hope to quiet the UC the way that the Blackhawks silenced their own barn.
You can bet the Blackhawks are going to be ready to face them, and give them a great battle.