Full disclosure: The first name yours truly scribbled atop my Hart Trophy ballot before submitting it late last month -- and it was done without a nanosecond of hesitation -- was Jonathan Toews.
Full disclosure, part deux: When the National Hockey League announced last Friday its three finalists for the Hart -- awarded to the player "adjudged to be the most valuable to his team" -- and the Chicago Blackhawks' captain wasn't among them, the first reaction from this corner went something like:
Now, this isn't to suggest that Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and John Tavares are not worthy. It's just that "Captain Serious" has come to represent everything that makes the Blackhawks championship-calibre: He has that coveted combo of skill and will, and the fact he was overlooked borders on criminal.
Here's evidence of what we think makes Toews worthy of the Hart and wearing the Blackhawks' "C": When the finalists were announced last week, he was naturally approached by the media, who were seeking some sort of reaction to being snubbed.
"There's another guy across the room that deserves it just as much, probably more," Toews, referencing Patrick Kane, told the Chicago Sun-Times. "To have two guys in the talks like that, it always shows that you have a great supporting cast. It's nice. It's an honour. But you don't get to that point if your team doesn't have success the way we did this year. So huge credit to those guys."
That's the kind of leadership -- with a nod toward their depth -- that helped the Blackhawks to a five-game, first-round decision over the Minnesota Wild. It's also why it says here that Chicago, not Pittsburgh, has been the best club in the NHL through the regular season and remains so as the second round is about to begin.
With that in mind, here's a closer look at the two Western Conference semifinals, which begin tonight in Los Angeles with three of the top four seeds -- Anaheim, Vancouver and St. Louis -- already having exited in Round 1:
Chicago Blackhawks (1) vs. Detroit Red Wings (7)
Game 1: Wednesday, 7 p.m., United Center, Chicago
Head to head: The Blackhawks went 4-0 vs. the Red Wings this year, winning twice in a shootout and once in overtime.
Why the Blackhawks will win: Chicago breezed by the Wild without a goal from either Toews or Kane but with production from their other stars such as Patrick Sharp (five goals) and Marian Hossa (three goals) and their assortment of foot soldiers like Bryan Bickell (three goals) and Michael Frolik (two). A stat worth noting that highlights the Hawks' depth: In their five-game series against Minny, 11 of the 13 forwards who dressed registered at least one point.
But the Hawks don't get it done by overwhelming their opponents with one barrage after another from their offensive firepower like the Penguins. Their deep defence, led by Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and goaltender Corey Crawford, allowed only seven goals in five games and completely shut down the Wild power play, which was an anemic 0-for-17 in the series. That commitment to defending, plus the expectation that Toews and Kane will start producing offensively in the second round -- and, in the process, perhaps breathe life into a moribund power play (two-for-13 vs. the Wild) -- leaves the distinct impression the Hawks, as good as they've been, can still find another gear or two.
Why the Red Wings will win: Detroit scrapped and clawed just to get into the post-season, winning four straight down the stretch to clinch their 22nd consecutive playoff berth, and that desperation was still in their game against the Ducks. Even with all the talk this winter about how the Wings would manage without Niklas Lidstrom, there remains considerable star power with the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and solid secondary scoring from Justin Abdelkader, Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula and Daniel Cleary.
What fuelled Detroit's first-round upset of the Ducks was the work of some of their young and emerging stars, including goaltender Jamie Howard, Damien Brunner, Gustav Nyquist and Joakim Andersson. There is a solid mix of young and old, skill and brawn all being exceptionally deployed by one of the best coaches in the biz in Mike Babcock.
Tim Campbell picks: Chicago in five.
Gary Lawless picks: Chicago in seven.
Ed Tait picks: Chicago in five.
Los Angeles Kings (5) vs. San Jose Sharks (6)
Game 1: Tonight, 9 p.m., Staples Center, Los Angeles.
Head to head: The Kings were 2-1-1 vs. the Sharks this season.
Why the Kings will win: They are the defending champs and, in dispatching a solid St. Louis squad in the opening round, showcased just why they are built to repeat. They are big, deep, skilled and backed by a superb netminder in Jonathan Quick. The Kings, like the Blackhawks, were able to advance past the Blues -- who won the first two games of the series -- without real production from their top line. L.A.'s top trio of Anze Kopitar centring Justin Williams and Dustin Brown got stronger as the series progressed, but it was the Mike Richards line, featuring Jeff Carter and Dwight King, that was especially effective. Winkler's Dustin Penner is also coming alive, having scored twice in the series -- including the Game 6 clincher.
The Kings' already deep defensive corps has been bolstered by the addition of Robyn Regehr, who is paired with Drew Doughty, while Slava Voynov might be one of the most unheralded players in the entire NHL.
This is a team that knows how to win and, after rolling into the post-season as the fifth seed in the West, seems to be finding its spring mojo again.
Why the Sharks will win: Lost in all the hand-wringing in Vancouver about San Jose's sweep of the Canucks was the solid work of the men in teal and black. The Sharks might just be undergoing a bit of a metamorphosis, transforming from a team long dominated by players like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle to one now led by Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture, among others. The move of Brent Burns from defence to wing gives the forward crew more oomph, while the trade-deadline acquisition of Raffi Torres has offered another element of speed, grit and depth. The Sharks were scary-good at home, going 17-2-5 in the regular season and reeling off two more against the Canucks in the opening round.
Finally, but not to be forgotten, the Sharks are getting world-class goaltending from Antti Niemi who was outstanding against the Canucks and will be even busier against the Kings
Tim Campbell picks: San Jose in seven.
Gary Lawless picks: Los Angeles in seven.
Ed Tait picks: Los Angeles in six.
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