One point and one win separated the Chicago Blackhawks from the San Jose Sharks during the regular season. While the Sharks were able to best the Hawks 113-112 points to earn the regular-season National Hockey League Western conference title, the extra victory belonged to the Hawks (53). Of course, the playoffs are a different animal than the regular season, and, while the Hawks' 3-1 record (including two overtime victories) against the Sharks serves as a hint as to just how well they match up against them, the facts do a much better job:
• The Hawks are the epitome of youth (and talented youth at that), while the Sharks – not so much. Chicago's top five scorers during the regular season (Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa) average an age of approximately 26 years. Meanwhile, the Sharks top five (Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, Dan Boyle, and Ryane Clowe) average about 30 years. The argument stands that Chicago is less likely to break down and grow tired this deep into the playoffs.
If you don't believe the logic, take the Sharks' leading scorer Joe Thornton for one example as to just how much difference four years make. Four years ago, Thornton won the Art Ross and Hart Memorial Trophies as the leading point-getter and most valuable player in the league. In that season, he totaled 125 points. The next: 114. The next after that: 96. After that: 86. This season, he had 89 points, but the truth is he just isn't the same player at 30 years of age (when he should be in the prime of his career, one could argue) that he was at 26.
• Their starting goaltending is better. While there were questions entering the playoffs regarding the reliability of starting goaltender Antti Niemi, he has answered the call and has posted a better save percentage (.909) than the Sharks's Evgeni Nabokov (.907). Nabokov does have a better goals against average (2.43 versus 2.57), though.
• The Hawks have got Toews, who currently leads the league in points (20). Shark Joe Pavelski has 15 to lead his team. While the Sharks have played one fewer game, though, once you start to examine the depth of the teams, the discrepancy between the two becomes that much greater. The Hawks's Kane and Sharp have 15 and 14 points, while Sharks Thornton and Marleau have 11 each.
• The Hawks don't have a history of choking. The Sharks last got to the conference final in 2004 and have lived through their share of heartbreaking disappointments since then. The Hawks got there as recently as last year, only to lose to a better team in the Detroit Red Wings.
This year, they are the better team, though.
Bold Prediction: Chicago Blackhawks over San Jose Sharks in six games
As for the anti-Western conference, where the bottom two seeds will face each other, it pains me to say this, but I believe the Philadelphia Flyers will beat out the Montreal Canadiens.
After the Flyers came back from three games down in their conference final and three goals down in the final game to beat the Boston Bruins, it's hard to see them not coming out on top once again. Whether or not the Bruins choked big baby bear chunks becomes irrelevant. After being able to come back from the largest of all deficits, the Flyers are able to legitimately use the one rallying cry that can unite them under the worst of circumstances. It's fair to say that the Flyers won't go down three games to none again, so, worst-case scenario is that they go down three games to one. Then what? All they have to do is look back to the previous round and say: "Three games to one? We can come back from that with one hand tied behind our backs!" Conversely, if the Flyers find themselves up in the series, they know firsthand what not to do to let the Canadiens back into it.
Ideally, not only would the Habs liked to face the more-banged-up Bruins, but the more emotionally fragile Bruins as well. Game seven in that Flyers-Bruins series unfolded perfectly up to a point for the Habs: the Bruins gave up a three-goal lead and were unquestionably filled with self-doubt the length of that infamous third period. All they had to do was get that one third-period goal instead of the Flyers to win the series and then they would have been ripe for the taking in the conference final. Instead, the Habs will play an infinitely more resilient opponent in the Flyers, and, as impressive as Montreal has been, one cannot deny that they've gotten to this point more out of luck and good (no, awesome; no, spectacular; no, superhuman; no, Halakian) goaltending than skill. The Flyers are arguably the underdogs in this series and the role of favourites is not something the Habs (or at least this edition of the Habs) play well. If Montreal is fortunate enough to get a three-game lead, then it's over. If not…
Bold Prediction: Philadelphia Flyers over Montreal Canadiens in six games