The inexperience and lack of grit that was supposed to be the downfall of the Chicago Blackhawks in their first round series with the Calgary Flames just wasn’t a factor at all. In fact, youthful enthusiasm and unheralded toughness are main reasons why the Hawks disposed of the Flames in six games after a 3-1 win Monday.
Chicago’s playoff inexperience was negated by the composed guidance of coach Joel Quenneville, while timely and consistent efforts from seasoned performers Martin Havlat, Sami Pahlsson and Nikolai Khabibulin led the way. It also helps that Chicago’s youngest players are their best players — Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and rookie Kris Versteeg.
As for grit, the Hawks more than held their own against the larger and undisciplined Flames. Dustin Byfuglien, Adam Burish, Brent Seabrook, Matt Walker and Ben Eager played with a good blend of controlled aggression. The Flames, in turn, took silly penalties at inopportune times and special teams was one reason why Calgary fell in six games.
He’s Chicago’s most valuable player now, but if he keeps playing this way for another month, Nikolai Khabibulin will be one of the most sought-after unrestricted free agents in the off-season.
The Hawks will turn over starter’s duties to big-ticketed Cristobal Huet next season regardless of how far Habby takes the Hawks this spring. Other than medicore efforts in Games 3 and 4, he was dominant, steady and outstanding against the Flames, far outshadowing Miikka Kiprusoff in the Calgary crease. Rebound control is a big difference between the goalies. Khabibulin is very parsimonious with loose pucks.
At 36, look for Khabibulin to get interest from a few teams such as Colorado, Toronto or even Edmonton.
FIRST AND OUT
The Flames are exiting the playoffs in the first round for the fourth-straight year, since making it to the final against Tampa Bay in 2004. Coach Mike Keenan was brought in in 2007 specifically to get Calgary over the hump and he’s 0-for-2, so look for a change behind the Calgary bench.
Other reasons for Calgary’s inability to flourish in the playoffs? Injuries for sure. The Flames were hobbled with key injuries down the stretch and lost an 11-point bulge over Vancouver in the Northwest Division. Then in the playoffs, injuries to Robyn Regehr, Daymond Langkow and Dion Phaneuf gave Chicago a distinct advantage.
More reasons? Calgary’s highest-priced players didn’t play up to expectations. That includes Jarome Iginla (shadowed brilliantly by Chicago shutdown defensemen Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith), Mike Cammalleri (virtually ineffective in the final quarter of the season and rendered a passenger in the playoffs), Phaneuf (hardly noticed him in the first five games), Daymond Langkow (undisclosed injury didn’t help) and the once-brilliant Miikka Kiprusoff.
SPEAKING OF MIIKKA
Calgary’s playoff loss can’t be hung on Kiprusoff, but nevertheless, certain facts cannot be overlooked.
Kiprusoff was outplayed by long-time rival Khabibulin in four of the six games. It must’ve burned Kipper’s butt to watch Habby make key save after key save in Game 6 while he himself could not. Calgary badly outshot Chicago in Game 6 and it wasn’t enough.
It’s four years running now that Kiprusoff’s goals-against average went up while his save percentage went down in the playoffs compared to the regular season. Yet we were told all season long Kipper’s a gamer, he not tired and he’s willing to play every game if need be. My guess is the new coach won’t allow that to happen next season and Kipper will max out at about 60 games rather than 76.
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Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior special editions editor and a regular contributor to THN.com. You can find his blog each weekend.
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