The NHL playoffs hit a fever pitch over the next two nights, as both Western Conference semi-finals reach Game 7. It’s San Jose-Los Angeles from tonight, and Chicago was able to force a decisive game with their win last in Detroit. You have the defending champion on the ropes in one series and one of this season’s co-favorites on the ropes in another. Both will have the home crowd behind them in Game 7. Here’s a look ahead to the next two nights…
The Blackhawks are the top-heavy favorite to win the West and a co-favorite with Pittsburgh for the Cup, and they got their second straight must-win game yesterday in Detroit. There were more than a few nervous moments—when a fluttering puck found its way past Chicago goalie Corey Crawford and gave Detroit a 2-1 lead after two periods, it looked like it might not be Chicago’s year. But the Blackhawks pounded in three goals in the first ten minutes of the third period and won the game 4-3.
What Chicago has to be most encouraged by is the involvement of Marian Hossa in the offense. He’s been quiet this series, not just in terms of the bottom line, but even taking his shots on the net. Hossa scored Game 6’s first goal on the power play and had an assist in the third period barrage. Jonathan Toews continued his active involvement in the offense with two assists of his own. If Hossa is back on track along with Toews, it allows Chicago to reassert their dominance in the 5-on-5 game.
The other thing Chicago can be encouraged by is the play of Crawford. Statistically, Game 6 was fine—a 92% save rate—but not overwhelming. What I like is the fact he came back after the fluttering goal and did a great job with the season on the line. I also like the fact that he stood in against a heavy attack from Detroit—they hit him with 18 shots in the second period alone, and when you allow that it’s inevitable one is going to slip through.
What I like on Detroit’s side is precisely the fact that they got those 18 shots in a single period, they took 38 on the game and they contained Chicago to 28 attempts on the net. Jimmy Howard reverted to his inconsistent ways and had a rough night, but if the Red Wings can hold the Blackhawks under thirty shots tomorrow night, they’ve given their goalie every chance to win. Detroit is simply not as talented as Chicago between the nets—not even close, really—the best the Wings can hope for is to again create the kind of shot disparity they did in Game 6 and hope the end result works out better.
We should also note that Detroit is a veteran team that’s already won a road Game 7 in these playoffs, at Anaheim. Make no mistake—I think Chicago’s going to win, because if Crawford has the mental toughness that he showed on the road, the Blackhawks just have too many weapons—but Detroit won’t give it way. Chicago will have to take it.
LOS ANGELES-SAN JOSE
This series has been the grinding, defensive battle that’s the nightmare of the NBC network coalition televising this postseason, but it speaks well to the discipline of both these hockey teams. Once again, Game 6 saw both teams held under thirty shots, but San Jose was able to build a 2-0 lead early in the second period and then hold on for a 2-1 win.
I do a little moonlighting on the hockey website Puck Doctors, and over there I wrote that Los Angeles can feel pretty good about their defensive effort in Game 6. It’s not just that they held San Jose to minimal shots and two goals, but they kept the Sharks four best players from even taking a significant number of shots. It’s hard enough to beat Jonathan Quick with your best players, much less doing so without them. On that basis, Los Angeles can feel good about their chances in front of the home fans tonight.
But the Sharks are devouring LA’s best players as well. Jeff Carter only took two shots, and San Jose goalie Antti Niemi has the feel of one who’s getting locked in. Niemi is not as good as Quick, but the Shark netminder is still pretty good, and if he combines that with being hot, the game can then swing in the 5-on-5 game, and San Jose has more weapons.
What elevated Los Angeles in last year’s Stanley Cup run was not Quick—he was great all year, but they still ended up as the 8-seed in the West. What put them over the top was that players like Dustin Brown, Carter, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Penner, suddenly turned into an offensive juggernaut. Defenseman Drew Doughty suddenly turned into an offensive threat. I’m not saying Los Angeles has to recapture all of that magic—but they’ve got to at least recapture a little of it.
I picked San Jose in seven games when this series began, and I can’t fathom why I’d change my mind now.
Both Game 7s are going to be carried by the NBC Sports Network. The San Jose-Los Angeles game on Tuesday is a 9 PM ET start, with Detroit-Chicago having the puck drop at 8 PM ET tomorrow. TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis comes back Thursday morning. We’ll rehash these games and look ahead to the conference finals on both sides of the bracket.