Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Blackhawks on Inside Track for Cup Finals

The Hawks in game 2: A picture tells a thousand stories

In real-estate jargon, the slogan "location, location, location" is often put to use when a buyer isn't clear on what would give him or her the best return on their investment. In playoff hockey, where attempts to obtain precious property are often met with vicious blows to the body, nasty slashes, and thuggish high sticks, the same paradigm holds true.

You want to score goals? You want to win series and reach the holy grail? Then get bodies to that crease-sized patch of ice directly in front of the opposing goaltender and get to work. And if at first you don't succeed (or if you get a punch in the nose or a stick in the ribs), try try again.

In this year's NHL Western Conference Finals, it has quickly (and painfully in the Sharks case) become apparent that pretty passes and fancy power-play puck movement wont do the trick. Neither will determined cycling around the walls when it doesn't lead to the promised land - that precious and pricey 4x4 sheet of ice where the bulk of NHL playoff goal scoring is done.

The deeper you go in the playoffs, the harder it becomes to find ways to score against teams whose defenseman are prepared to kill you for a rebound.

But the Blackhawks, all playoffs long, have found ways to score. They know it's a dirty job, but unlike San Jose at the moment, they also know that someone - or better yet all of them - has to do it.

When it comes to crease-crashing, the Blackhawks are led by Dustin Byfuglien, a bruising 257-lb. power forward who doesn't just get in front of the net, he does it with strategical insight. But he's not the only one willing to skate the hard yards for Chicago. The team which is now tied for the longest string of NHL playoff road victories at seven, has a full cast of characters who are dead set on screening, nagging, bumping, and basically undermining the concentration of Nabokov. Patrick Kane, Jonanthan Toews, Troy Brower, Andrew Ladd - pretty much anybody that dresses for Joel Quenneville's squad knows what mission No. 1 is.

Meanwhile, the Sharks know that they need to match the Hawks intensity - but knowing it and doing it are two entirely different things.

Sharks messiah Joe Thornton by many accounts has played solid hockey in the series first two games. But he's a minus 4 for the series, and his superstar line that also features Patrick Marleau and Danny Heatley are a combined minus 8. To the casual observer the Sharks top line looks dangerous, but are they really? They are throwing a lot of pucks at the net, but rarely do they find a way to corral the rebound and turn it into a score - a surefire recipe for frustration.

The Sharks goal a game pace has done more than leave them shaking their heads. Joe Thornton's ill-timed and penalized slash of Hawks center Dave Bolland midway through game two's final period was at best a show of unproductive frustration - he'd be much better served skipping the histrionics and taking his massive frame to the front of the cage where the real meat and potatoes are being served in this series.

Anything else is just scraps.

Scrappy teams win Stanley cups, not teams that survive on scraps - the sooner the Sharks realize this, the better off they'll be in this series.

But it already may be too late.