By Brady Stiff
Is this a bad sign? The Blackhawks stole Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals from the San Jose Sharks. In their first two series, the Hawks lost Game 1, but went on to win the series.
It was a tightly-played game in which Antti Niemi was forced to come up huge 44 times, and he did. The last time he faced that many shots was, well, never. He continues to defy all sports logic with his fantastic rookie season, taking the Blackhawks deep into the playoffs.
The Sharks scored first, but never scored again. It must have been a frustrating day for San Jose because they had five power plays and didn’t have to kill a single penalty. They only converted on one of their power plays, and that includes one for the last minute of the game in which they pulled Evgeni Nabokov to go with six attackers against the Hawks’ penalty killers.
The Blackhawks caught a huge break on that last penalty as well. Dave Bolland was clearly the perpetrator on the final tripping penalty, but the officials sent Kris Versteeg to the box instead. From an official’s standpoint, it’s easy to mix up numbers (Bolland is #36 and Versteeg is #32). I’ve done it several times as a basketball official. It seemed as though everyone but the officials and the Sharks caught the mistake. The Hawks sure didn’t mind, because it allowed Dave Bolland to be on the ice to kill the penalty.
Despite the penalties, I thought the Hawks played a good, but not great game. All the talk going in was about how the Sharks had been off for eight days, and the Hawks had been off since Tuesday. But in the first period, the Sharks came out smelling blood and they looked like a team who had just played the other night. The Blackhawks looked like the team who had been off for an extended period.
If they can play like that and still win the game, I think they’ll be OK for the series.
Their passing wasn’t crisp, and of course they took some dumb penalties (one of which led to the San Jose goal). But if the Hawks can play like they’re capable of playing, then the Sharks won’t stand a chance.
That being said, the Sharks are definitely the best team the Hawks have played thus far in the postseason. It’s not even close. The Sharks are just as fast, and probably bigger than the Blackhawks. The difference is, I think the Hawks can put together some more dangerous lines than the Sharks can.
To win the series, the Hawks have to play good, smart hockey. Any mistakes will come back to bite you. The Sharks are too good to sit idly by while the Hawks skate circles around them. They’ll come out pushing even harder than they did in Game 1, which was pretty hard. I’d be willing to bet that the series will head back to Chicago tied at one game apiece, with the Hawks having a chance to hold serve at home to take a 3-1 lead. They haven’t been great at home in the playoffs, but they were great at the United Center, so there’s no reason to think that they can’t continue to be great.