Looking at the Western Conference final

(1) Detroit Red Wings (51-21-10, 1ST, Central) vs. (4) Chicago Blackhawks (46-24-12, 2nd, Central)

2008-09 SERIES: Detroit, 4-2-0

LEADERS: Detroit – Jiri Hudler (6 GP, 4G, 5A); Brian Rafalski (6 GP, 1G, 6A); Marian Hossa (4 GP, 2G, 4A); Henrik Zetterberg (6 GP, 2G, 4A); Johan Franzen (6 GP, 3G, 2A); Pavek Datsyuk (6 GP, 3G, 1A); Ty Conklin (5 GP, 4-1-0, 3.10 GAA); Chris Osgood (1 GP, 0-1-0, 3.00 GAA). Chicago – Martin Havlat (6 GP, 2G, 6A); Brian Campbell (6 GP, 7A); Andrew Ladd and Jonathan Toews (6 GP, 3G, 2A); Patrick Kane (6 GP, 1G, 3A); Kris Versteeg (5 GP, 2G, 2A); Nikolai Khabibulin (4 GP, 1-1-1, 2.69 GAA, 1 SO); Cristobal Huet (3 GP, 1-1-1, 4.29 GAA).

The last time the Chicago Blackhawks raised the Stanley Cup, it came at the expense of the Detroit Red Wings.

To take one more step toward ending the NHL’s longest title drought, the young Blackhawks must find a way to beat the defending champions.

When the teams take the ice Sunday afternoon at Joe Louis Arena to kick off the Western Conference finals, several storylines will be bandied about - Original Six rivals … two of the most storied franchises … re-embracing of hockey in the Windy City.

And, perhaps, the new guard ready to bypass the old one.

Say this much for the Blackhawks, for a franchise that hasn’t made it this far in postseason play since 1995, they’re not intimidated by facing a team that has won four Stanley Cups in 11 years.

“Certainly we liked the experience we gained in the first two rounds,” said coach Joel Quenneville, who will try to lead Chicago to its first Cup since 1961. “We didn't know how we were going to handle the playoffs for a first time for a lot of the guys. I thought we were on-the-job training every day, gaining experience, preparing in different situations in games, coming out of games, trying to find out how to close out a series. I thought both times we handled those assignments very well.

"But I just think as we go into games, the excitement and enthusiasm on our team has been real. … The guys are excited about this challenge and this opportunity. Should make for a great series.”

The Blackhawks hadn’t been to the postseason in seven years, but defeated Calgary, then did away with Vancouver – advancing to this round with a 7-5 in Game 6, spearheaded by Patrick Kane’s hat trick.

“Obviously Detroit has been there before plenty of times. But for us, I think it's exciting for the fans that have been here since then and since that point,” Kane said. “Just to be a part of it, just to be a part of kind of the resurgence of the franchise the past couple years, how fun it's been … It's been a helluva ride. It's been really enjoyable. I don't think you could have predicted it to be any better.”

Kane leads Chicago with eight postseason goals and is second with 12 points, one behind Martin Havlat. Captain Johnathan Toews and Calder Trophy-hopeful Kris Versteeg each have 10.

Balance, sure. But make no mistake that Red Wings coach Mike Babcock will have his team focus on Nos. 19 and 88.

“There's nothing similar about them at all,” Babcock said. “Toews to me, he's a will guy. He's the guy you need to have for your franchise because he's a guy that's going to play two ways. He's the guy that's going to will your team to success, he's the guy that's going to set the tone in practice.

“Kane is the guy who can channel in a phone booth … how can a guy that size go into traffic like he does, never get touched, be so strong on the puck, score as many goals as he does, yet always be open on the back door, shoot the puck, have the instincts he has, play in big games? To me he's an exciting, fantastic player. But they're very much different."

Detroit’s offense still remains one of the most dangerous in the game with the likes of Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa and Johan Franzen. One player who’s struggled, though, has been Pavel Datsyuk – currently tied for ninth with five points.

He led the Wings in scoring each of the last four seasons, and was second with 23 during last year’s championship run. So, is there something physically wrong or … ?

“Pavel is a proud guy,” Babcock said. “He wants to be leading the team in scoring. He usually does. When he's not, he probably puts some pressure on himself. He's just got to make sure he's not thinking too much and just play the game.”

The matchup goal is an intriguing one. Detroit's Chris Osgood is one of those players you don't think much of in the regular season because he saves all for the postseason - he's second among active goaltenders with 67 playoff wins, and the most of the four that will starts in the conference finals.

Osgood expects to face an amped-up Chicago club this time, but doesn't expect many changes, if any.

"We expect the intensity level, the speed level and their type of play to be bumped up that much higher," said Osgood, a three-time Cup winner. "The games are totally different than the regular season. But individually we know what their tendencies are, but we're gonna have to be able to match that for the whole series."

Nikolai Khabibulin is fourth with 39 wins, and a Stanley Cup ring to his credit. That veteran leadership could be a boost to Kane and the remainder of the Blackhawks.

“You know, I think it's gonna be a great series, though. I think the fans obviously wanted a Wings/Hawks series. In Game 6, three or four minutes left, they were yelling, Detroit sucks, things like that. It's going to be great for the fans,” Kane said.

All things considered, this has the potential to be one of the best conference finals matchups in decades. Easily.

THE PICK: Chicago in 6. Though they hadn’t been to the postseason in seven years, the Blackhawks have been unfazed so far. Khabibulin has outplayed two of the league’s best netminders in Miikka Kiprusoff and Roberto Luongo, and I’ll take him over Osgood.

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