Why is Vancouver so much better than last season?
The Canucks made changes in their leadership, and it's paid off on the ice. They went from 26th in penalty minutes per game in 2009-10 to 13th in that category this year. Gone is motor mouth Shane O'Brien while the captain is no longer goaltender Roberto Luongo. They speak and play with one voice: Fast and disciplined. They only had one of those traits a year ago. On the ice the Sedin twins combined for 198 points, and their second line center, Ryan Kesler, had a career year netting 41 goals. Their defense is also better than a year ago.
Who will play the role of Dustin Byfuglien standing in front of Luongo?
Probably no one. For two postseasons Byfuglien was a force in front of the Canucks' net, but the Hawks haven't found anyone to replace him. Tomas Kopecky can be a pest there but doesn't have the hands to finish like Byfuglien did when he scored a hat trick in Game 3 last season. Kopecky talked early in the season of not looking for tips as much as pure screens, so while he's not accumulating goals or assists he might be able to be a factor for point shots on power plays.
How Important is Dave Bolland and will he return for the series?
Bolland could be the whole key to a Hawks' series win. He shut down the Sedins last postseason, frustrating them into penalties and taking them out of their comfort zone. If he returns it allows Jonathan Toews to concentrate on offense while Bolland can handle the defense. Otherwise, Toews' line has too much responsibility which is fine against St. Louis but not Vancouver. Out since March 9 with a concussion, he's had one practice with the team so the clock is ticking on a return -- barring a setback. Bolland hasn't been cleared for contact but could be any day. A Game 1 appearance is doubtful, but by Friday he could be ready to go or else maybe when the Hawks return home for Game 3.
Can it? Yes. Will it? Doubtful. Between taking some leadership responsibility away from Luongo and lightening his workload Luongo seems more primed for a playoff run than he did in two previous postseasons. Plus, he doesn't have the big bodied Byfuglien to bother him. Crawford won't be overwhelmed by playing in Vancouver -- he did well in the regular season there -- but he'll need to play more instinctual against the creative Sedins.
Can the Hawks, who lost 10 more games than Vancouver in the regular season, pull off the upset?
Assuming Bolland returns, but even if he doesn't, they can pull the upset as long as Crawford holds his own. The Canucks like a skating game which is about the only way the Hawks have won this year. The matchup is a good one for the underdog and history is certainly on the Hawks side. It might not matter before the series begins but if Vancouver repeats any mistakes they made over the last two postseasons -- like taking bad penalties---than the mental edge will tilt towards the Hawks. It can happen, though the Hawks deserve to be decided underdogs.