My series preview and prediction have already been posted, meaning it’s now time to take a closer look at the Blackhawks and what they need to do to bring home Lord Stanley for a third time in six years.
The Hawks are coming off of what many are calling one of their toughest series in the Toews-Kane era. The Ducks were arguably the deepest team that the Blackhawks have faced in a seven game series in recent years, as well as one of the biggest. Anaheim, or more specifically Ryan Kesler, was sure that there was no way any human being could withstand the physical pounding induced by the Ducks and still win the series. Well, that may be true because the Blackhawks aren’t really humans. They are more along the lines of indestructible machines that don’t seem to care what style of hockey you play. They’ll simply adjust and still find a way to win.
Over the course of the Western Conference Final, we saw what kind of team the Blackhawks truly are this year. Not to take anything away from Nashville or Minnesota, but neither team really pushed the Hawks to their limit in nearly each game of the series like the Ducks just did.
In beating Anaheim, we learned/rediscovered the fact that this group of Blackhawks players never backs down when faced with adversity and has too much experience, leadership, and heart to lose. We also learned that this Hawks team is the deepest team in the NHL at the forward position; a huge reason for their victory over the Ducks.
Duncan Keith, as if trying to remind us all of his superhuman abilities, logged more minutes against Anaheim than in any previous playoff series he had played, yet only seemed to get stronger as the series prolonged. If the playoffs ended today, he’d be a top three candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.
Looking ahead now to their date with Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup Final, here’s what the Blackhawks must do to win:
- Four-line production. I’ve said it a couple times already, and I’ll say it again. The Blackhawks need to keep getting production from all four lines. Their bottom two lines are what kept them alive in the WCF before Toews and Kane were reunited on the top line and took over the show. Assuming the lines from Game 7 stick heading into Game 1 with Tampa, it would be safe to think the Hawks’ top line will continue producing, and possibly at an even higher rate than they already have been due to there being no more Ryan Kesler on the other side. The second line of Bickell, Richards, and Hossa looked pretty solid in Game 7 (despite Bickell sitting with an injury most of the night), and this line could be a key to victory for the Hawks in this series. With Hossa starting to get hot and Richards looking more and more like his old self, rolling two formidable lines could be huge against Tampa. The third and fourth lines of the Hawks just need to keep doing what they’ve been doing. Keep in mind that the Hawks just knocked off Anaheim without Patrick Sharp scoring a single goal in the series. If he gets going now, look out.
- Stabilize Tampa’s top six. Nearly ALL of Tampa Bay’s scoring in these playoffs has come from their top two lines. The leading scorer on either of their bottom two lines, Ryan Callahan, has a grand total of just FOUR points this postseason. If the Blackhawks can take away some of the scoring from even just one of the Lightning’s top two lines, Tampa will be in trouble and their bottom six will be forced to produce. It’s hard to win the Stanley Cup while getting production from just two lines.
- Keep up the good D. Despite using basically four and a half defensemen against the Ducks, the Blackhawks’ blue liners still played a really solid series. Duncan Keith is playing out of this world right now and is looking like the planet’s best d-man yet again. Brent Seabrook has been just what he’s needed to be defensively this postseason, while also coming up with big goals along the way. Niklas Hjalmarsson keeps blocking shots and is arguably the Hawks’ best d-man in the defensive zone, which is saying something. Johnny Oduya is having an incredible postseason, which has allowed Quenneville to pair him up with Hjalmarsson and Seabrook at any point in time. As for the fifth and sixth d-men, it’s now Kyle Cumiskey and David Rundblad filling those slots. Kimmo Timonen and Michal Roszival started the playoffs as the Hawks’ last two defensemen, but have since been benched and injured respectively. Given Tampa’s lack of size and good speed, Kyle Cumiskey may very well see his role increase this series. He’s quick and likes playing a fast game. If David Rundblad can simply do what he did in games 6 and 7 against Anaheim, he’ll be fine.
- Win or play to a draw on special teams. The Blackhawks’ powerplay has been rather ineffective for much of these playoffs, despite getting a couple big goals in Game 7 against the Ducks. When given a man advantage in this series, the Hawks have got to at least generate chances and momentum, and preferably score. Too many times have they given their opponent momentum by getting nothing going on the powerplay. That can’t continue happening now. As for the penalty kill, the Blackhawks have gotten better in that area recently, but will be going up against a usually potent powerplay of the Lightning. Killing off penalties, as usual, will be key. If the Hawks can win or at least come out even in special teams against the Lightning, I like the Blackhawks’ chances due to their depth advantage at even strength.
- And the obvious one, Corey Crawford. If you don’t have good goaltending right now, you’ve got no shot. Crawford has been on this stage before, whereas Ben Bishop has not, and Crawford needs to play that way. By that, I mean he needs to play this series like he’s been here before. He has come up huge for the Hawks already on a handful of occasions this postseason, including a couple times against the Ducks (most notably games 2, 6, and 7). His .919 save percentage is just one point behind Bishop, but given where that number was at after the first round, Crawford has clearly turned his game around. As I said in my series prediction, Crawford’s rebound control has been phenomenal at times this postseason, including, yet again, games 2 and 7 against the Ducks. When he is absorbing the puck and not giving up rebounds, he is nearly unbeatable. If he can keep up his play in net, it’ll be on the guys in front of him to get the job done, and that’s a good thing.
Something I didn’t mention above is that the Lightning love playing with speed going north and south. The Blackhawks are one of the best teams at defending that. If you go back and look at Game 7 against the Ducks, for example, Anaheim tried continuously to move the puck through the neutral zone with speed, only to run into a wall of defenders or have the puck stripped. Considering that playing with speed through the neutral zone and getting odd man rushes is such a huge part of Tampa’s offense, if the Hawks can slow them down in that regard, the Lightning could be in trouble.
On the flip side, the Blackhawks also like playing with speed going north and south through the neutral zone. Anaheim, one of the league’s best defensive teams at the forward spot, had serious trouble stopping the Hawks from playing that way. Tampa Bay, who probably doesn’t have the caliber of defensive forwards that Anaheim does, will most likely also have trouble, and maybe more, stopping the Blackhawks from using their speed going up the ice with the puck. If the Hawks can be the ones to dictate the pace of play and use their north-south speed to their advantage, they’ll be in good shape.
Another thing that I haven’t touched on is the experience factor. I’m sure some of you are now rolling your eyes and saying that this aspect of the game gets blown out of proportion. If you think that way, that’s perfectly fine. However, you cannot overlook the fact that the Blackhawks have been here twice in the last six years and walked away hoisting the Cup both times. This team knows better than any other team how to handle big games, pressure, and adversity. That type of experience pays big dividends, as evidenced by the way the Hawks blew out Anaheim in Game 7. I’m not saying the pressure will ultimately make Tampa Bay crumble, but it may wear on them more than it will the Hawks.
Looking at this matchup on paper, which is all we can really do at this point, the Blackhawks have a decent advantage in my eyes. Yes Tampa is fast and probably faster than anyone the Hawks have faced, but their lack of depth and experience will prove to be too costly against a Hawks team that is loaded with forward depth and experience in this round. If the Blackhawks can take one of the first two games in Tampa Bay, it will put the Lightning under a lot of pressure to win one of the first two games in Chicago, where the Blackhawks are nearly unbeatable. Whether or not that pressure proves to be too much for this young and inexperienced Tampa team remains to be seen.
I’m saying Blackhawks in six.