There is nothing more satisfying for hockey fans than a heavyweight playoff matchup, where the two best teams meet and the outcome feels like the crowning of a true champion. We got a taste of this last season, when the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings met in the Stanley Cup final and gave us a series for the ages. Right now, the two best teams in the Western Conference project to be the San Jose Sharks and the Chicago Blackhawks. Witness, as statement wins, the Hawks' 7-1 embarrassment of the Calgary Flames on Nov. 19, or their league-record five-goal comeback against those same Flames a month earlier.
The Hawks are a combined 7-0 against the Flames, Avalanche, Penguins and Sharks so far this year. The Sharks, for their part, are No. 1 in the conference standings for a second season in a row. With apologies to the surprising Kings, it would be immensely satisfying if the Sharks and Blackhawks were to meet in the Western Conference final. How would such a series play out? Who would win?
To figure this out, I assumed that the current rosters would be the ones present in the playoffs, with each team playing at full strength (i.e. no injuries). Since neither of these teams has any glaring weaknesses and both are tight on cap space, it's unlikely that either one will make any significant moves between now and March. I then simulated the matchup 5,000 times to see which team came out on top. I also did the same thing for the Eastern Conference.
The result in the West was about as tight as it can get: The Blackhawks won 53 percent of the time.
The keys to the matchup:
Stopping the Sharks' No. 1 line: The Sharks have a top line of Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau, which may be the best in the NHL. Indeed, the Sharks are the second-strongest offensive team this season, behind only the Washington Capitals. Entering this past weekend, Heatley and Marleau accounted for nearly 40 percent of the Sharks' 105 goals this year, and stopping them is the key to beating the Sharks. In games where the pair has been held scoreless this year, the Sharks' record was 2-4-2; when either scores, it's 17-3-3. The simulations predict that the Hawks will be able to do this, to some extent: Heatley and Marleau were predicted to combine for roughly 0.8 goals per game, far less than the 1.22 they've been averaging so far this season.
The Blackhawks' depth: The Blackhawks have the best forward depth in the NHL, especially with the return of Marian Hossa. The Hawks have 89 goals, but their top scorer -- Patrick Kane -- is the only skater to hit double digits (10). The Hawks' second and third lines, with Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Patrick Sharp and Andrew Ladd, will contribute 0.2 goals per game more than the Sharks' second and third lines, especially if Dave Bolland is back in full health.
The blue line: The Blackhawks top four defensemen -- Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell and Niklas Hjalmarsson -- are stronger than any in the league, and reminiscent of the Detroit blue line in its heyday. Keith and Seabrook are particularly important as they will likely be assigned the role of containing the Thornton line. The loss of Christian Ehrhoff has eliminated some of the depth they had last year, putting more weight on the omnipresent Dan Boyle, who plays every special teams situation. But Boyle, 33, whose ice time has increased from 25 minutes a game to 27 this season, may be fatigued come the playoffs, as he seems likely to represent Canada in the Olympics in February. This is the Blackhawks' biggest advantage in the matchup: having quality defensemen on the ice at all times helps them shut down the Sharks' top units and helps maintain puck possession and shot advantage.
In the crease: Chicago's goaltending has been the major question mark since Nikolai Khabibulin left, leaving the job to Cristobal Huet. But after a rocky start to the season Huet has regained his edge -- his save percentage since Oct. 24 is 0.922 -- he is more than enough for a Hawks team that allows only 24 shots per game. Their backup, Antti Niemi, is playing like a No. 1, with a .937 save percentage and 1.50 GAA in eight games. Meanwhile, Evgeni Nabokov is having the year of his life, backstopping a San Jose team playing a more open style than in years past. Nabokov was one of the scapegoats for last year's playoff collapse to Anaheim, and he is looking for redemption. The simulations agree: Nabokov is seen as posting a sparkling 0.915 save percent, while Huet is pegged at .905.
Style of play and possession: The Blackhawks are a puck possession, shot volume team. Entering the weekend, the Hawks had outshot their opponents by 237 shots this season, tops in the league. Their strategy is to use their puck-moving talent at the blue line to fire a lot of pucks at the net. They also win 53 percent of their faceoffs, which helps maintain possession. This is particularly important on the powerplay, where Chicago has won a league-leading 63 percent of draws. The key here is Jonathan Toews, who takes all the important draws. On the flip side, they give up a fair number of turnovers and allow dangerous shots against, which makes goaltending in Chicago quite an adventure.
The Sharks traded away Ehrhoff to make room for Heatley, and without him as a second puck-moving wizard behind Boyle, San Jose has seen their shot differential drop from +3.6 per game to +0.3 per game. They have compensated by capitalizing more, with a team shooting percentage of 10.6 percent; having forwards like Thornton, Heatley and Marleau allows you to get away with that. The Sharks also win a league-leading 55 percent of their draws, and they are strong up and down the lineup (Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Marleau, Manny Malhotra and Scott Nichol all win their fair share of draws).
However, the simulations predict that Chicago will outshoot the Sharks by five shots per game in this matchup (31-26), which increases the pressure on Nabokov. This shot differential is mostly a product of Chicago's better defensemen, and gives the Blackhawks the overall edge, despite the Sharks' better snipers and goaltender.
Overall, these are two teams with some of the best offensive talent in the league, strong blue lines and quality goaltending. There are no glaring weaknesses on either, and their fourth lines can at least compete with, if not match, other teams' top units. The major difference is the Blackhawks' blue line, which features four quality defensemen who complement each other well and could each play a pretty good No. 1 role on another team. If these teams meet in May, that could be the difference that pushes Chicago over the top.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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