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Western Conference finals: Sharks vs. Blackhawks

A look at the matchup between San Jose and Chicago.

May 15, 2010

Upsets shook up the Eastern Conference, where the seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers made history and the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens eliminated the No. 1-seeded Washington Capitals and the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

In the Western Conference, nearly everything went according to form — except that the San Jose Sharks didn't choke.

The Canadiens took themselves off NBC's Christmas card list by eliminating Alexander Ovechkin's Capitals in the first round and dispatching Sidney Crosby's Penguins in the second round. They finished each series with a Game 7 road victory, earning their first conference finals berth since 1993, the year of their last Cup title.

The Flyers overpowered the New Jersey Devils in the first round, then became the third NHL team to overcome a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series when they rallied from a 3-0 first-period deficit to win Game 7 at the Boston Bruins on Friday.

The Sharks, who hadn't gotten past the second round since 2004, overcame 1-0 and 2-1 series deficits in defeating the Colorado Avalanche in the first round. They followed that with a gritty, five-game elimination of the defending West champion Detroit Red Wings, winning each game by one goal.

The Chicago Blackhawks also overcame 1-0 and 2-1 series deficits in their first-round series against the Nashville Predators. The Blackhawks then lined up behind the superb two-way play of team captain Jonathan Toews to defeat the Vancouver Canucks in six games.

A look at how the conference finals shape up

WEST

No. 1 San Jose Sharks vs. No. 2 Chicago Blackhawks

Regular-season records: San Jose 51-20-11, Chicago 52-22-8.

Regular-season scoring leaders: San Jose — Joe Thornton 20 goals, 69 assists—89 points. Chicago — Patrick Kane 30-58—88.

Playoff scoring leaders: San Jose — Joe Pavelski 9-6—15. Chicago — Jonathan Toews 6-14—20.

Playoff special teams: Power play — San Jose 19.3%, Chicago 21.6%. Penalty killing — San Jose 84.2%, Chicago 88.7%

Goaltending (expected starters): San Jose — Evgeni Nabokov 2.43 goals-against average, .907 save percentage. Chicago — Antti Niemi 2.57 goals-against average, .909 save percentage.

Outlook: San Jose's "Jumbo" Joe Thornton became "Little Joe" through a string of weak playoff performances in recent years, but he did a lot to shed that label with a team-leading eight points against Detroit. Second-line center Joe Pavelski also excelled with eight points against Colorado and seven against Detroit. He leads both teams with five power-play goals and three game-winners. The Sharks are solid on the wings too, with five goals from Devin Setoguchi and a good amount of grit on every line. Douglas Murray is a top-notch shutdown defenseman and a key defensive performer along with Dan Boyle. Nabokov can be erratic and gave up 15 goals in five starts against Detroit. His defense will have to keep the crease as clear as possible.

Toews, outstanding in leading Canada to Olympic gold, has stayed hot with a postseason-leading 20 points. He had four goals and 12 points against Vancouver, a dominant effort. Dustin Byfuglien is a big-bodied, physical presence who gave the Canucks fits and will try to do the same to the Sharks. The mobility and production of the Blackhawks' defense will be crucial. Chicago won three of four in the teams' season series, but Cristobal Huet was the goalie then and they're now going with Niemi, who gave up 17 goals in six games against Vancouver.

If Jumbo Joe plays big again and Pavelski continues his mastery, the Sharks will be hard to stop. A lot of this will be a mental challenge for the Sharks, who have never reached the Cup finals. The Blackhawks have speed and can be dangerous on the penalty kill — they have three short-handed goals in the playoffs — and they will need more from Marian Hossa (two goals) and Duncan Keith (-1 rating).

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