What a road it’s been for the Chicago Blackhawks franchise since the strike year of 2004.  A franchise that was voted the worst run franchise in professional sports has morphed themselves into the hottest ticket in town.  A ton of credit is due to a ton of people that took a team that could not draw flies into one of the top teams in the National Hockey League.

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With yesterday’s 5-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks placing the Hawks in the Western Conference Finals for the second consecutive year, I wonder if all the questions we have about this team have been answered yet.  With stellar defense, team speed, depth, and great goaltending so far this playoffs, I believe only one question remains and it is a question we have all had all year long.

Can Antti Niemi beat the San Jose Sharks?

All season long the one issue that Hawks fans and the media has concentrated on is can a rookie goaltender take a team as talented as the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup.  Of the first two rounds Antti Niemi has proven that the pressure has not gotten to him, and he has indeed responded.

The stats do not really reflect exactly how well Niemi has been playing with a 2.57 GAA and .909 save percentage, which are both worse than his season averages in 2009-2010.  Niemi has made the saves when he has needed to make them, and has not allowed the easy goals which goalies get roasted for in the postseason.

Of all the positives we have seen so far from Antti Niemi the only question that remains is can he beat the Sharks?

[photogallerylink id=10398 align=left]The Chicago Blackhawks were 3-1 this season against San Jose outscoring them 17-11 in those match ups with Cristobal Huet in goal.  The average Blackhawks fan would say if the Hawks did so well with Huet in goal, Niemi should have no problem in this series.  With every new series comes new challenges and the big challenge for Antti Niemi this round will be stopping what could be the most dangerous offense remaining in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The San Jose Sharks are loaded with top line goal scorers from Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, Joe Pavelski and of course Joe Thornton.  These four players have led the Sharks to winning seven of their last eight playoffs games and rolled over the one team all Blackhawks fans did not want to face in the postseason….the Detroit Red WingsEvgeni Nabakov has not been a stellar goaltender for the Sharks in the postseason, but like Niemi has been good enough to earn the ‘W’.  The Sharks are a team that plays great in their own zone and puts a ton of shots on net which could hurt Niemi in the end with a not-so-stellar save percentage this season.

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The one thing about the Sharks that is still keeping some doubts in my mind is this is a team that has been here and has experience on both the winning end and losing end of playoff series.  This is the third season in a row where the Sharks have won Northwest Division, but only the first time they’ve advance to the conference final in those three seasons.

They have age, experience, depth, and good coaching.  This is a team where the mind games the Blackhawks used north of the border will not work.  The Hawks simply have to outplay the Sharks to every single inch of the ice.  As much as the home ice advantage has been a disadvantage this postseason, the Hawks will have their first test this postseason not starting a series at the “Madhouse On Madison.”

To me the winner of this seven game series will win the Stanley Cup because to me the East is so much weaker now without the Capitals and Devils still in contention.  I said in an earlier post that I cannot pick the Hawks to win the Stanley Cup and I will remain with the prediction.

I do not believe Antti Niemi can beat a team like the San Jose Sharks not because he has no prior experience against them.  I believe the defense will have a tough time keeping up with the depth of the San Jose Sharks‘ forwards and for the first time this postseason Niemi will have to stand on his head.

It will be a competitive, fun, exciting, must-see-TV event (if you can stay up late), but sorry Hawks fans….I got Sharks in an awesome 7th game advancing to Stanley Cup Finals.


Rock Mamola is the Associate Producer of The Mully And Hanley Morning Show and co-host of The Joe O And Rock Show on WSCR 670AM The Score

You can follow The Mully And Hanley Morning Show at twitter.com/mullyhanley

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You can follow The Joe O And Rock Show at twitter.com/joeoandrockshow