Friday May 15th, 2009

Western Conference Finals: (2) Detroit Red Wings vs. (4) Chicago Blackhawks Regular season series: Red Wings won 4-2 Oct. 25: Red Wings 6 at Blackhawks 5 Dec. 6: at Red Wings 5, Blackhawks 4 Dec. 30: Blackhawks 0 at Red Wings 4 Jan. 1: Red Wings 6 at Blackhawks 4 April 11: Blackhawks 4 at Red Wings 2 April 12: Red Wings 0 at Blackhawks 3

THE SKINNY: Nothing against the Ducks, who made a pretty nice run at it for a one-line team, but there's a little more glamour to the Western Conference final now that two Original Six clubs are renewing hostilities.

This is old hat for the defending champs from Detroit, who are in the Final Four for the third consecutive spring. The Blackhawks are in slightly less familiar surroundings, this being their first trip to the third round in 14 years. Ultimately, that experience under pressure could prove to be the difference maker.

Not that the Hawks will be an easy team to pin. The core may be young, but these playoffs have shown them to be an any-way-you-want-to-play team. Against the Flames, they were the physical aggressors, intimidating Calgary along the boards and in the crease. Against the Canucks, they made the most of their speed and skill to burn Vancouver's slower defense and light up Roberto Luongo.

That makes it easy to get caught staring at Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp, but the team's real strength has been a blue line (especially the duo of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrooke) that's shut down some of the league's most potent forwards, and a group of high-energy bangers up front who've succeeded at wearing down opposing defenders over the long haul.

The Hawks may also take confidence from their last two regular-season meetings with Detroit, both Chicago wins. But they'd do well to remember that there's a good reason why the Wings are the last team standing from the Big Three.

"Coming off winning the Cup, they know what it's like to win and play in big games," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "They have several high-end offensive guys. They have maybe the best player in the league [Nicklas Lidstrom] on the back end. There's a lot to be concerned with." No kidding. The Wings just took down a tough, experienced Anaheim team despite getting virtually no offense from Pavel Datsyuk and Marian Hossa. It's unlikely they'll be silenced two series in a row. And Detroit's special teams were reinforced by the returns of Brian Rafalski and Kris Draper late in the last series. And don't look now, but Chris Osgood has flipped the switch that so many doubters (including yours truly) wondered if he could find. His 2.06 GAA and .921 save percentage are significantly better than his regular-season numbers, suggesting both an improvement in his play and in the commitment level of his teammates to defensive responsibility. The Hawks come into the series with a rep as the league's most exciting young team. But the Wings are the most exciting, experienced team. In this case, take age before beauty.

The Spotlight Is On: Jonathan Toews. The big center finally got the offensive gorilla off his back when it mattered, scoring a pair of goals in Game 6 to help Chicago clinch its second-round series against the Canucks. But was that enough to assuage the concerns that built up while he contributed just one assist through the first five? Don't think so. Even at 21, Toews plays the sort of mature defensive game that ensures he'll make his mark in this series even if he's firing blanks. That said, the rest of the young Hawks will be hard-pressed to keep pace with the Wings if he's not bringing a consistent two-way game. X-Factor for Red Wings: Jiri Hudler. The elfin forward had a hit-and-miss series against the bruising Ducks but his skill set should be put to better use in the conference final. Hudler led the Wings with four goals and nine points in the six games this season against the Hawks. Look for him to make a nuisance of himself down low. X-Factor for Blackhawks: Sami Pahlsson. There were several reasons why the Ducks almost tarred the Red Wings, but the ability of Todd Marchant to shut down Datsyuk ranks near the top. Pahlsson needs to duplicate that success to mitigate the impact of Detroit's depth, but he'll be hard-pressed to repeat the feat. In three meetings with the Wings while with Anaheim this season, Pahlsson was a minus-3 and was held pointless. He has to step it up. THE PICK: Red Wings in six. Eastern Conference Finals preview Playoffs Schedule

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.