CHICAGO – The top of the list includes Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa. Patrick Sharp is coming off another great playoff series, and Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland have come up with big post-season goals in the past.
The Chicago Blackhawks have waves of talented lines, making them a difficult matchup for any team. Months after Nicklas Lidstrom retired, they pose quite the challenge for the Detroit Red Wings.
When one of the NHL’s biggest rivalries resumes in the playoffs on Wednesday night, there will be a lot of talk about the play of goalies Corey Crawford of Chicago and Jimmy Howard of Detroit. The Blackhawks are going to have to find a way to shut down the Detroit trio of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen.
But Chicago’s deep group of forwards against Detroit’s refurbished defence could go a long way to deciding the 16th post-season series between the proud Original Six franchises.
“There’s going to be a test there for them,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “We just try to keep making progress. We’ve had good growth on our team all year long and it has to continue to happen.”
Detroit lost decades of experience when Lidstrom announced his retirement a year ago. The seven-time Norris Trophy winner helped the Red Wings to four Stanley Cups and is among the best defencemen to ever play the game.
Lidstrom’s absence left a giant hole in front of Howard, but Detroit then decided to trade Brad Stuart to San Jose in June because he made it clear that he wanted to be closer to his family. Down Lidstrom and Stuart, the Red Wings had to rely on a mix of young and unproven defencemen to provide key minutes.
Due in part to the evolving lines in the back, Detroit’s annual appearance in the playoffs was in jeopardy until it won the last four games of the regular season to secure the seventh spot in the West and extend the longest active post-season streak in major professional sports to 22 straight seasons.
“They got better as the season went on, and they got better as the playoffs went on,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “They always play a really responsible team game and I think their whole team game helps their defence as well.”
While the Red Wings squeaked past the Ducks in the first round of the post-season, Chicago rolled over Minnesota in five games. Eight players had at least one goal and 15 recorded at least one point as the Blackhawks outscored the Wild 17-7, including an 8-1 margin over the final two nights.
It was a continuation of the regular season for Chicago, which finished second to Pittsburgh with 149 goals while rolling to the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage for as long as it’s around in the NHL playoffs.
“I think we know it’s going to be a tough series,” Zetterberg said. “They played well all regular season. They took care of Minnesota pretty quick and they’ve been resting for a few days. It’s going to be a challenge for us, for sure, but the same way, if we play the way we want and do all the little things right, we have a chance.”
The series opener against Detroit will be the first game for Chicago since it closed out Minnesota with a 5-1 victory on Thursday. The Blackhawks used all that time to rest, but it also allowed Quenneville to take a look at a couple different line combinations—providing even more material for Detroit to consider.
Bolland is healthy again after he missed the first-round series with a lower-body injury, and he is expected to centre Chicago’s third line. Quenneville also said Michal Handzus is fine after he missed two days of practice. Viktor Stalberg, one of the fastest skaters on the team, has been working outside of the top four lines in practice, so his role against Detroit is up in the air.
“I really don’t have anything to say about it,” Stalberg said. “Ask Q.”
Asked about what Stalberg can do to get back in the lineup, Quenneville responded: “Stay ready, stay ready. Nobody said he’s out of the lineup, but keep yourself, make decisions tough on us.”
Stalberg had nine goals and 14 assists in 47 games this season, then had a big assist and a plus-2 rating while playing all five games in the first round against Minnesota. It’s quite a luxury for Quenneville to consider leaving him off the top four lines, but such is life for the Blackhawks this season.
It’s also quite the problem for Detroit.
“It should be a fun series,” said Kane, who led the team with 55 points this season. “We’re really looking forward to the challenge.”
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Romulus, Mich., contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap