And lo and behold, the greatest time of the year has also given us the best possible matchup in the first round - and it's certainly not because I think they're the shakiest team going in (that's Los Angeles from the West and Philadelphia from the East for me). I want the Blackhawks because I want to kick their butts. There is no question that the Canucks are the best (regular season) team this year and with Salo, Edler, Bieksa, Hamhuis, Ballard, and Ehrhoff all healthy, our confidence should be at an all-time high.
When the Canucks do beat them (in 5 games, no less), it'll be a little less satisfying because their big "Boogey Man" from last year is hitting the courses early with the rest of the Atlanta Thrashers. It just wouldn't be as sweet a victory without Dustin Byfuglien looking dejected on the Blackhawks bench, but a series win is a series win, and the Canucks will have the final trump card.
Other than the Boston-Montreal series (way too many storylines, the best being Price vs. Thomas), no other series has the potential to be more historically significant in a rivalry than this one. (I guess you could count Philadelphia-Buffalo, who will meet for the 9th time in history, but some of those series have been duds). Consider the consequences: if the Blackhawks manage to upset, they WILL have Vancouver's number. A 2 vs. 3-seed series could go either way, but if an 8 seed upsets the league's best team, they walk into the second round with sky-high confidence (which is also a reason why when lower seeds upset in the first round they tend to win in the second too). If the Canucks win, they are now the league's best team without any supposed weaknesses. Only Detroit will be viewed as a potential weakness but only because of their pedigree and reputation and goaltending's an issue. San Jose might be a really tough opponent too if they could bring the same intensity to brought in their final regular season tune-up but their depth doesn't hold a candle to the Canucks'.
Either way, it's going to be an interesting series, blowout or not. Here's 5 things to watch for:
1. Roberto Luongo enters this series as the X factor (again and again) and this time's there's really no excuses – the Canucks have given him the rest during the season he obviously needed to stay fresh. He's said so himself, he's playing the best hockey of his career. Alright, Roberto, show us what you've really got. You may have a gold medal around your neck but we want the parade. And for the record, I don't think Luongo's leash is very long (if things go really south there's no way you don't play Schneider even though he is a rookie).
2. Who steps up their game for the Hawks? The depth isn't there and other than the usual suspects (Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp) their best offensively gifted player is Michal Frolik who has 3 goals in 28 games. Tomas Kopecky will stir up some trouble but he should be easier to handle since he's about 50 lbs. lighter than Byfuglien. It's nothing a Kevin Bieksa-stare can't handle.
3. The only guy I've seen who's always been able to really get the Sedins off their game is Dave Bolland. Unfortunately, along with Troy Brouwer, both are unlikely to dress for the series opener. Bolland has a concussion and with those things it's always dicey. Like I said, if the Canucks win it won't be quite the same, but they're still the Blackhawks, no?
4. Maturity is often the issue with Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows and by distancing themselves from any extracurriculars Kesler cracked the 40-goal barrier. There were times though, where you could see the old Kesler start to creep back, especially when his wingers weren't making the plays or when things weren't going right for himself. It's going to be a pressure packed series and there will be all the more need for Kesler and Burrows to stay on an even keel. (As an aside, my two picks for the Hart are between Daniel and Corey Perry, but I also think that Kesler's the team MVP. How does that work? How does the second-best player on his team be considered for the Hart? Honestly, I don't even know. I can't really explain it until you watch a Canucks game. Also, shouldn't the Canucks should given an award to Mr. Kesler for his little sit-down with Ryan? Without him, no 41-goal Kesler.)
5. That's compared to the Hawks, who sounded more relieved to be just in the playoffs. They didn't bring their A game against Detroit (with shaky goaltending) and they had to count on Marc Crawford and the Stars to choke (who didn't see that coming?) to make it into the top 8. Some of the players couldn't even watch the game. When that happens the players are more relieved than psyched to play in the playoffs. If the Blackhawks can go from "happy to be there" to "brand new season" mode before game one they will be much more competitive. The Hawks entered last summer as a team with a lot of swagger and confidence. That's definitely not the story anymore. Can and will the Canucks take care of that?
For more hockey stuff visit my new (still kind of under construction) site Armchair Hockey. Click for my Eastern Conference Preview, Hart, Jack Adams, Selke, Norris, and Masterton picks. Western Conference Preview and Vezina, Calder picks coming soon.