#1 San Jose vs. #2 Chicago
How they got here: The top-seeded Sharks downed Colorado in six games in the first round, then got past two-time defending conference champion Detroit in a close five-game series in the second round. The Blackhawks needed six games to eliminate both Nashville (first round) and Vancouver (second round.)
Regular season head-to-head: Chicago won the first meeting, 4-3 in overtime on a Brent Seabrook goal after erasing a 3-1 second period deficit. The second game was a 7-2 rout by Chicago in Marian Hossa's first game of the season. Hossa scored twice and Chicago scored three shorthanded goals. The Sharks got a win in the third game, 3-2, behind Evgeni Nabokov's 45 saves. The Blackhawks clinched the season series following a 4-3 overtime victory. Chicago led 3-0 before San Jose netted the next three, but Troy Brouwer's second goal of the game in overtime gave the Blackhawks the win.
Key performers (San Jose): Joe Pavelski (9 goals, 15 points); Joe Thornton (3-8-11); Dany Heatley (2-9-11); Devin Setoguchi (5-3-8); Patrick Marleau (3-4-7); Rob Blake (31 blocked shots); Nabokov (8-3, 2.43 GAA, .907%, 1 shutout)
Key performers (Chicago): Jonathan Toews (6-14-20); Patrick Kane (7-8-15); Patrick Sharp (5-9-14); Hossa (2-8-10); Dustin Byfuglien (4-2-6, 37 hits and one badass style of play); Brent Sopel (35 blocked shots); Antti Niemi (8-4, 2.57, .909, 2 shutouts)
Why it's surprising San Jose is here: The Sharks haven't exactly been strong playoff performers in the past. San Jose is in the conference finals for the first time since 2004 despite being perennially near or on top of the conference. San Jose had to go through Detroit, which was playing its finest hockey of the season, in the second round, and there were a number of people (not me, though, certainly...) who picked the Red Wings to knock off the Sharks.
Why it's not surprising San Jose is here: History aside, this is a strong San Jose team with two solid scoring lines and getting valuable contributions throughout the lineup. When someone on the team slacks off, someone else stepped up in their place. For instance, Thornton, Marleau and Heatley were silent in the first round, but Pavelski and Setoguchi carried the team through. The reverse happened in the second round.
Why it's surprising Chicago is here: The Blackhawks have used an unknown, untested goalie as its starter. Honestly, that's it. Unless you want to count beating the Hossa karma, but that only seems to come into play in the Stanley Cup Final. OK, one more: Some people believed the Canucks had the talent and heart to knock off the Blackhawks.
Why it's not surprising Chicago is here: The top Blackhawks have played like their top players. Chicago boasts tremendous depth at both the forward position and on the blue line. The Canucks did not have the talent nor the heart to knock off the Blackhawks. And, well, Chicago is just seriously loaded. Not only is there excellent depth but the high-end talent is pretty darn high.
Why San Jose can win: The two Joe's need to provide consistent contributions for the length of the series. Pavelski held the league lead in playoff goals but was held to one point (an assist) the last three games against the Red Wings. Marleau and Heatley need to put the puck in the net. Marleau's got the hot hand but Heatley is still sitting on two goals, albeit he's helping out in other areas. Nabokov needs to show he's an elite performer when it matters most. San Jose proved it can win in hostile arenas with two wins in Joe Louis Arena.
Why San Jose can't win: If only one of their top two lines can score. If Nabokov fails in another high-pressure situation. If they allow Byfuglien to wreak havoc like he did against the Canucks.
Why Chicago can win: Toews is turning in a quality Conn Smythe candidacy. Byfuglien is a force when he's playing his style of game and getting to the front of the net. The team is clicking on most cylinders. There was no panic about having to play a Game 6 in Vancouver.
Why Chicago can't win: Mainly if Niemi falters. There have been struggles on home ice. Not having home-ice advantage could render that moot, but it's not a given to win in California. San Jose will be more disciplined than Vancouver was. Duncan Keith might be showing some signs of fatigue.
Who will win: There will be pressure on both sides, and it's hard to say who has more. San Jose's the top seed but underachieves in the playoffs, yet being in the conference finals almost relieves that pressure because the team rarely gets this far, so some demons have already been exorcised. As soon as Chicago signed Hossa, the Blackhawks were dubbed a Stanley Cup favorite. Oddly, the Blackhawks and their youth are more experienced at this kind of thing than these Sharks. Chicago in six.
(Game 1 prediction: Chicago 4, San Jose 2.)