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May 15, 2013
NHL Playoffs, Second Round
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Detroit Red Wings

by Ryan Wagman

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Chicago and Detroit, two storied Original Six franchises, have locked horns in the playoffs 15 times already in their rich history. The Hawks hold a slight series edge, having won eight—including the 1934 and 1961 Stanley Cup Finals, the only two times the Great Lakes rivals have directly contested over the fate of the Cup. Looking at individual playoff games, the Hawks increase their lead, having won 39 games to 35 victories for the Wings.

With the two arenas located an easy four-hour-and-twenty-minute drive from door to door, we are privileged to see them square off one final time before the Red Wings relocate to the Eastern Conference next season. The last time the two squads met in the postseason, in the 2009 Western Conference Finals, the Red Wings knocked off the Blackhawks in five games, with three games going to overtime. The Wings proceeded to lose in the Finals to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Only seven Hawks and eight Wings remain from the lineups that met in the deciding matchup four years ago.

Even strength

Chicago Blackhawks close-game Fenwick: 56.1% (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Detroit Red Wings close-game Fenwick: 53.9% (Rank: 5th in NHL)
Total: Chicago Blackhawks, 2.2%

Much like the first round series between the St. Louis Blues and the Los Angeles Kings, this matchup pits two squads who have earned stellar reputations when it comes to puck possession. For both Chicago and Detroit, the ability to control the flow of the game is a teamwide concept, as neither squad has a single player in the NHL top 30 in Relative Corsi, measuring how many shots were taken for and against while a given player was on the ice. Furthermore, neither team goes out of its way to shelter players from tougher circumstances, as all players are expected to be disciplined to make the roster.

For Chicago, all regular players except for Dave Bolland, late-season addition Michal Handzus, and (surprisingly) Patrick Kane are above average in this metric, or close enough that the effect can be considered marginal over a best of seven series. Kane has lined up most often with Dave Bolland and Patrick Sharp in the regular season and may continue to team up with them in the Conference Semifinals. Although Bolland sat out the first round due to a groin injury, he is reportedly ready to return for the upcoming series. If Bolland is dropped from the "Patrick" line, expect Handzus to play the role he held in the first round again.

For the Red Wings, possession is controlled through their centers, three of whom—Pavel Datsyuk, Joakim Andersson, and Justin Abdelkader are especially strong at puck control. Andersson has been a bit of a revelation as a rookie, tasked with more defensive zone faceoffs than most of his teammates, although generally against weaker competition. Expect Patrick Eaves to take over from Cory Emmerton on the fourth line, as he did in Game 7 against Anaheim. Emmerton, although sheltered, has been the Wings worst possession player this season.

Advantage: Chicago, by the numbers, but the fact that one of their scoring lines is a net negative in possession brings it back to a draw. Even.

Detroit offense vs. Chicago defense

Detroit Red Wings offense: -5.4 GVT (Rank: 19th in NHL)
Chicago Blackhawks defense GVT: 17.1 GVT (Rank: 3rd in NHL)
Chicago Blackhawks goaltending GVT: 10.0 GVT (Rank: 6th in NHL)
Total: Detroit Red Wings, -32.5 GVT

This portion of the matchup is as lopsided as it appears from the numbers above. The Blackhawks sport the best defensive game of any team left in the playoffs, while only Ottawa and San Jose were weaker offensively than Detroit in 2012-13. While not the greatest way of dissecting a team's offensive prowess, the Wings had only five players reach double digits in goals scored this season, with none more than team leader Datsyuk's 15. He was joined by Johan Franzen, Henrik Zetterberg, Abdelkader, and Damien Brunner among goal scorers. Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Franzen were also the only Wings to top 5.0 Offensive GVT.

There is a question as to how Mike Babcock will split his offensive talent in the second round. While Datsyuk generally teamed with Abdelkader and Franzen during the regular season, the first round saw Franzen moved off the top line in exchange for Zetterberg more often than not. Secondary scoring will be expected from Brunner, who scored a few critical goals in the first round, Daniel Cleary, and Franzen. Keep a close eye on Gustav Nyquist as well, who has been playing on a line with Andersson and Brunner of late. Offense from the blueline is no longer frequent in Motown, following the retirement of first Brian Rafalski and then Nicklas Lidstrom, but Niklas Kronwall, Brendan Smith, Jakub Kindl, and Jonathan Ericsson all can chip in on occasion.

As the Blackhawks have possession of the puck so often, there is not much call for a defensive zone specialist. That said, Marcus Kruger has been an unsung hero when it comes to dirty draws, which is odd as he is not the most talented faceoff man, having won only 46.2% of his total draws on the season. Like Andersson with Detroit, though, Kruger tends to play against weaker competition, leaving the task of neutralizing the big guns to Bolland and the blueline duo of Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson. The high profile defensive tandem of Seabrook and Keith are still a prolific pair on both ends of the ice, although both suffered through a down year by their lofty standards. Having a top forward line the caliber of Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, and Calder Trophy nominee Brandon Saad certainly helps tremendously. They were the Hawks' top three forwards by defensive GVT.

The Hawks also excel at the last line of defense with the duo of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery in net. Although they split the games equitably during the regular season, Crawford took the reins in the first round (at least partially due to an Emery injury) and can be expected to resume that role against Detroit. Although Crawford's GAA was far and away a career high, his save percentage of .926 was on par with his performance of two seasons ago, suggesting that he can sustain his current level of play. Chicago is also one of the few teams that can place blind trust in their backup netminder should the number one go down—assuming Emery is healthy.

Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago offense vs. Detroit defense

Chicago Blackhawks offense 21.6 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Detroit Red Wings defense: 8.6 GVT (Rank: 6th in NHL)
Detroit Red Wings goaltending: 6.4 GVT (Rank: 12th in NHL)
Total: Chicago Blackhawks, 6.6 GVT

With Patrick Sharp now healthy after an injury plagued regular season, the Hawks can roll out two very strong and creative scoring lines and still have leftover scoring power available from the third and fourth lines. Toews, who many feel was slighted in the Hart Trophy nominations, had an excellent season, ranking the NHL's most valuable skater with 21.3 GVT. Between Toews and linemates Hossa and Saad, they combined for 50 goals and 25 OGVT. Their exemplary possession game played a key role on keeping those metrics high. The second line of Kane, Sharp, and the center du jour (likely Handzus) packs an offensive wallop, but without the strong two-way game of the first line.

Chicago gets depth scoring from Bolland (assuming a return to health), Andrew Shaw, Bryan Bickell, and Viktor Stalberg. If Detroit loads up to stop the top six, expect the third line of Shaw, Stalberg, and Bickell to play a decisive role in this series. The Blackhawks also receive ample offensive assistance from the blueline with the aforementioned duo of Seabrook and Keith both reaching 20 points in the short season. Nick Leddy, Michal Rozsival, and Oduya have also been known to add muscle to the attack, with the latter scoring a goal in the first round.

Like their opponents, the Red Wings best line of defense is their offense, as Datsyuk is a perennial Selke Trophy candidate, and one of the premier two-way forwards of this past generation. He was the only skater on the Wings with an even strength Relative Corsi above 10.0 in 2012-13. Although, as a possession dominant team, they do not have too many defensive zone faceoffs, the toughest assignments (such as they are) are most likely to fall to Dan Cleary and Abdelkader. Kronwall and Ericsson will do most of the heavy lifting from the blueline with most of the other defensemen likely to be given more offensive-oriented assignments.

In net, the Wings are correct to place full faith in Jimmy Howard, whose extensive track record in the playoffs can rival his regular season performance. Recently signed to a lucrative six-year extension, Howard is a workhorse, playing in close to 85% of the available minutes between the pipes for Detroit. Unlike Chicago, who can turn to Ray Emery in a pinch, the Red Wings should feel zero confidence in their backup, Jonas Gustavsson, should anything unseemly befall the starter.

Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks

Detroit power play vs. Chicago penalty kill

Detroit Red Wings power play: -1.1 GVT (Rank: 16th in NHL)
Chicago Blackhawks penalty killing: 10.0 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Total: Detroit Red Wings, -11.1 GVT

Although the Red Wings were successful on the power play against Anaheim in the first round, in the larger sample of the regular season, theirs was average at best, both by advanced metrics and as seen through the traditional power play efficiency stats, as their conversion rate of 18.4% was good for only 15th in the league. Datsyuk, Franzen, and Brunner man the first unit with Zetterberg dropping back to play the point along with natural defenseman Kronwall. The second unit, which includes regulars Cleary, Valterri Filpulla, and Kindl has a revolving cast of contributors who fill the remaining two slots. One of those slots settled on Nyquist in the first round.

Assisting greatly in Chicago's second-ranked penalty kill (per GVT) is the fact that they are also the second-least penalized team in the NHL. But it is not all about limiting opportunities, as their PK rate was also very high, finishing third overall at 87.2%. Their success has so far extended to the playoffs as well, as they were the only team not to surrender a power play goal in the first round. The heavy PK minutes are generally eaten up by the defensive pairings of Oduya-Hjalmarsson and Keith-Seabrook, with Kruger and Michael Frolik the most frequent participants among forwards. First line center Toews is also known to take a regular shift on the penalty kill, having even scored two shorthanded goals this season.

Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago power play vs. Detroit penalty kill

Chicago Blackhawks power play: -4.4 GVT (Rank: 22nd in NHL)
Detroit Red Wings penalty killing: -0.3 GVT (Rank: 16th in NHL)
Total: Detroit Red Wings, 4.1 GVT

If the Blackhawks have a weakness that can be seen in the numbers, this is it. There is an argument to be made that the seasonal numbers would be somewhat higher had Patrick Sharp not missed most of March to an injury, but as it stands, Kane has been the only reliable weapon for Chicago with the man advantage. Two of Nick Leddy, Keith, and Seabrook will occupy the points on most man advantage situations for the Blackhawks. The only other Hawk who showed even marginal proficiency on the power play has been Brandon Saad. It is almost shocking how ineffective the otherwise supremely talented Toews and Hossa have been in these situations.

The Red Wings, although historically a very disciplined team, were more prone than usual to be called for minor infractions this year, ranking 19th with 164 kills required for the season. The top defensive line of Ericsson and Kronwall are the most called-upon pair for penalty kill situations, with significant time also given to Kyle Quincey and rookie Brian Lashoff. The former seems to have lost his spot in the postseason to Brendan Smith. Among forwards, Drew Miller, Emmerton (if he is not in the pressbox), Joakim Andersson, Abdelkader, Datsyuk, and Zetterberg also receive regular shorthanded shifts, with the latter having scored twice in man-down situations.

Advantage: Detroit Red Wings

Season series results

The Blackhawks swept the season series against the Red Wings, but while the sweep includes a 7-1 drubbing in Detroit in late March, the other three games were all even through the end of regulation. The Hawks won once in overtime and twice in the shootout. In other words, in three out of four games this year, the Wings matched up very well with Chicago.

Not including shootout goals, the Blackhawks outscored the Red Wings 9-5, while the Wings outshot the Hawks by a combined 125-114. Eight of the 11 extra shots came while being crushed in the 7-1 clunker, when the Hawks would have been in defensive mode, so the shots are more even than meets the naked eye.

Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks

Faceoffs

Both Chicago and Detroit won exactly 50.8% of faceoffs this year. Most important draws for the Blackhawks are handled by Jonathan Toews, on the shortlist for best faceoff man in the NHL, tied for second leaguewide with 559 faceoff wins; his success rate of 59.9% is second to only Patrice Bergeron among the ten most prolific faceoff winners. For the Red Wings, Datsyuk is no slouch, having won 488 faceoffs (tied for eighth) at a rate of 55.0%. Chicago's other frequent faceoff takers are all below average, while Filpulla is the only other Wing to take more than 100 faceoffs and win at least half of them.

Advantage: Even

Injuries and intangibles

Bolland and Emery were both unavailable for Chicago in the first round, but reports have both as ready to go against Detroit. The only significant broken Wing is Miller, who fractured his hand towards the end of the regular season. There is a chance, albeit small, that he could return if this series goes deep.

Both the Wings and Blackhawks are recent Stanley Cup winners, with Detroit having won most recently in 2008, their third in 11 years, while the Hawks ended a 49-year drought by bringing home the Cup in 2010. That said, the Red Wings have been on a slow, gradual descent from their former powerhouse status over the past few years, with their championship core on the downslope of their powers. The Blackhawks began this season on a record pace, going 25 games before losing one in regulation. The Hawks won the President's Trophy with 77 points, five more than the runner-up Penguins. Further, Chicago will enter this series having had a week to rest, while Detroit will have only had three days to recover from a seven-game slog against Anaheim, four of which went to overtime.

Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks

Prediction

Chicago Blackhawks: 53.0 GVT (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Detroit Red Wings: 9.0 GVT (Rank: 12th in NHL)
Total difference: Chicago Blackhawks, 44.0 GVT

The Red Wings will not make it easy on Chicago, but they won't need to. The Blackhawks are a class above the Wings—and until a team proves them otherwise, a class above the rest of the league. Datsyuk and Zetterberg should be able to steal a win, but the Wings are not the same deep squad of the late 90s and early 00s, and enter this series as clear underdogs.

As Joe Sheehan would always say, the last sentence in any playoff series prediction article is the least important.

Chicago Blackhawks in five games

Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.

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