Some thoughts heading into tonight's pivotal third game in the Western Conference Final:
1. It's a chicken and the egg question: Has Chicago's transition game been so effective because San Jose's forecheck has been so passive or has San Jose's passive forecheck allowed Chicago to set the tone with their transition game?
Either way, it points to the fact that laying back in the neutral zone isn't working for Todd McLellan's team. The Sharks have to bear down harder on the puck when it's in the Hawks' zone. The pressure to make that happen falls not on the big line, but on aggressive forwards like Ryane Clowe, Logan Couture, Torrey Mitchell, Manny Malhotra and Scott Nichol. As good as Chicago's blueline has been, it's still comprised of humans. Removing time and space from them will lead to mistakes -- something the Hawks were rarely guilty of in the first two games. Look for McLellan to shuffle his lines to ensure that the forecheck comes into play with greater consistency and determination in Game 3.
2. It's understood that the raucous crowd will have the United Center jumping from the opening notes of the national anthem tonight, but here's a point that's overlooked: it might be more important for Chicago to take those fans out of the game than it will be for the visiting Sharks.
It's probably not coincidental that these young Hawks are more effective on the road (7-1) than at home, where they're just 3-3. To this point, they've displayed a perfectly natural tendency to play to the crowd, to go for the roar, instead of settling for the simpler game that's been the key to their successful travels. The Hawks will check into a local hotel after today's morning skate in an effort to replicate the road atmosphere, but there's more to it than mini-bars, Toblerones and being excused from taking out the trash, right? It's going to come down to their mindset on the ice. If they can remove themselves from the emotions of the crowd, they're more likely to play the kind of game that will put them up 3-0.
3. If the Sharks didn't get too caught up in the season finales of The Office and 30 Rock last night, they might have picked up a valuable lesson from watching Montreal's 5-1 win over the Flyers: Go to the net.
To a man, the Sharks understand that if they're going to beat Antti Niemi, they've got to smell his breath, but that game provided a refresher on how to execute. Four of Montreal's five goals were scored as a direct result of a player pouncing on a rebound in tight, a shooter driving hard to the net before taking his shot, or getting a body positioned in Michael Leighton's kitchen to create a screen. It's will over skill. San Jose simply has to pay the price.
4. McLellan has flatly denied it, but the evidence suggests Dany Heatley's playing hurt. No doubt it's harder for everyone to score at this time of year, but with just two goals in 12 postseason games it's clear the big winger simply hasn't been himself.
The coach noted in a postgame press conference that Heatley is getting his chances (seven shots through the first two games) and that a sniper will eventually start converting, but it sounded more like hope than a certainty. Remember, Heatley missed Game 3 of the Colorado series with a lower body injury and his effectiveness has been limited ever since. He's still finding the seams positionally, but it doesn't look like he's getting much power on the puck once it gets to him. That was evident in Game 1 when he was set up twice in close by his linemates, only to flutter shots into Niemi's midsection. The Sharks need more finish from Heatley to turn this series around, but he might not have much more to give.
5. I was speaking with a Western Conference front office member yesterday who was only too happy to remind me of a bold opinion he offered up early this season: given a choice, he'd take Jonathan Toews for his team ahead of Alexander Ovechkin. Had to admit that statement doesn't bring the same shock value it did back in October. No doubt, Ovechkin is more talented and a superior entertainer, but after watching Toews prove to be Canada's best forward at the Olympics and more recently emerge as the leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy, I'm starting to wonder if my acquaintance might not be the only decision-maker to hold that opinion.
6. We're a long way from being done yet, but if this series ends up being won by Chicago, expect to hear talk of how the long layoff between the Sharks' win over Detroit and the start of this round dulled San Jose's edge. The Sharks were idled eight days after dispatching the Red Wings in five, while the Hawks sat for just five after eliminating the Canucks. Both had plenty of time to rest the aches and pains, but it's impossible to maintain the intensity required for playoff success over a long stretch with just practices and scrimmages.
The Sharks weren't bad in Game 1, but they clearly weren't as sharp as Chicago. The Blackhawks took longer to find their legs, but did a better job of maintaining them. Like injuries and travel, a prolonged break in the schedule is one of the hazards that has to be negotiated in the pursuit of the Cup...but some hurdles are harder to clear than others.