This year’s Western Conference Final features some familiar faces, and some not so familiar faces. On the one hand, we’ve got the Chicago Blackhawks who are making their fifth appearance in the WCF in the last seven years. On the other hand, there’s the Anaheim Ducks. The last time the Ducks made it this far in the postseason was 2007 when they eventually went on to win the Stanley Cup. Of the players on that ’07 team, only three remain.
The Ducks finished this season tied with the Blues for the most points in the Western Conference (109) and held the tiebreaker over St. Louis thus giving them the top spot in the conference. So clearly, they’re a solid team. But what about them makes them so good?
Well, they’ve got one of the best lines in all of the NHL. That line features the star names of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, as well as Patrick Maroon. While most average fans may not be familiar with Maroon, he is no pushover. The 6’2″, 230 pound winger can play a bruising game while also owning the ability to put the puck in the net. He’s not Getzlaf or Perry, but he is a nice complement to them. As for Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, they are playing some great hockey this postseason. Perry leads the league with 15 points these playoffs, and Getzlaf is not far behind with 12.
Their second line consists of Matt Beleskey, Ryan Kesler, and Jakob Silfverberg. Silfverberg and Kesler rank third and fourth on the team in points this postseason, while Beleskey has just 5 of his own. All of his 5 points, however, are goals. This line is a pretty stellar defensive line, which is no surprise seeing as how Ryan Kesler is a former Selke Trophy winner.
The third and fourth lines of the Ducks are good, but not really great. They have some nice players such as Andrew Cogliano and Nate Thompson, but they just haven’t seemed to be able to generate a whole lot so far. The majority of Anaheim’s offense is provided by their top two lines.
Defensively, the Ducks are weak. This is most likely their achilles heel.
Hampus Lindholm, Francois Beauchemin, Cam Fowler, and Sami Vatanen are all pretty solid d-men when the play is in the offensive zone. They can generate from the blue line and contribute to the team’s offensive success. It’s when they are forced to defend in their own zone that these guys often find themselves in trouble. Both Winnipeg and Calgary were able to exploit this at times already this postseason, but neither team possessed enough offensive firepower to really make the Ducks pay. A team like the Blackhawks will make Anaheim pay for their lack of quality defensive defensemen.
In goal, the Ducks are riding the hot play of Frederik Andersen. During the first two round of the playoffs, Andersen posted a 1.96 goals against average and a .925 save percentage. Both of those statistics are respectable and deserve some recognition. Like most of his teammates, however, Andersen has never played this deep into the postseason. How he handles the pressure of playing in the Western Conference Final remains to be seen.
As for the Blackhawks, they come into this series fresh off a sweep of the Minnesota Wild, who many considered the hottest team in hockey heading into the second round. In beating the Wild, not only did the Hawks beat a very good team, but they also knocked out another Vezina Trophy finalist in Devan Dubnyk (Chicago beat Pekka Rinne in round one). Against two finalists for the best goaltender in the NHL during the regular season, the Blackhawks made both look mediocre at best.
Offensively, the Hawks have been led by Patrick Kane, who has 13 points this postseason and has scored at least one goal in five straight games. The team’s top line of Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews, and Marian Hossa has been very good and usually outplays whichever line is matched against them. That’s not really hard to believe when you consider that line has two future Hall of Famers.
The second line of Bryan Bickell, Brad Richards, and Patrick Kane has been good as well, although mostly because of Patrick Kane. The Hawks could really use a hot stretch from Bickell, who has earned a name for himself with his postseason performances the last two seasons. Even despite his lack of offensive production, Bickell has been a one man wrecking ball through the first two rounds with his physical play. That will need to continue.
The Blackhawks’ bottom two lines are what could put them over the top in this series. Their third line of Patrick Sharp, Antoine Vermette, and Teuvo Teravainen was outstanding against Minnesota. When they play the way they did in the second round, they’re basically a top two line. Due to the acquisition of Vermette at the trade deadline, it has allowed Joel Quenneville to move Andrew Shaw from the third line center position to the fourth line right wing spot; his natural position. This, along with the unexpected chemistry shown from Andrew Desjardins (another trade deadline acquisition) with his fourth line linemates, Marcus Kruger and Shaw, has made Chicago’s fourth line extremely valuable this postseason. They not only get matched up against the opposing team’s top line most of the time, but they also have been consistently creating offense. You can’t ask for much more from your fourth line.
The biggest reason Chicago did not defeat L.A. in last year’s WCF was because they couldn’t effectively roll four lines. This year they can and are arguably the deepest team in hockey at the forward position.
On defense, the Blackhawks have their usual top guys of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Johnny Oduya. They are just about as good of a top four as you’ll find in the NHL. It’s the fifth and sixth defensemen where the Hawks run in to some problems. Now that Michal Rozsival is done for the season with a fractured ankle, Kimmo Timonen will be forced to pick up some more minutes, which at 40 years old is more of a challenge than it sounds. Also, Rozsival’s injury means David Rundblad will be joining the lineup. Rundblad will most likely be paired with Duncan Keith, something that we saw a lot of during the regular season. The problem with Rundblad is that he can be a turnover machine. He absolutely must be smarter with the puck and not cost his team in this series.
The goaltending for the Hawks is actually better than what most people might think. After a rough first round, Corey Crawford has regained his regular season form and is playing at the top of his game. In the four games against the Wild in the second round, Crawford allowed just 7 goals. A couple of those goals came in the final minutes of Game Four when Minnesota was forced into desperation mode. Another 3 of those 7 goals came in the second period of Game 1. Needless to say, for nearly the entirety of the four games against the Wild, Corey Crawford was outstanding.
So now that we’ve briefly gone over each team’s make-up, here’s how this series will be won:
- Depth. Depth is a must in the playoffs, and especially when you get to this stage. Whichever team gets better play from their third and fourth lines will likely have an advantage.
- Special Teams. Both Chicago and Anaheim struggles on the powerplay during the regular season. During these playoffs, however, the Ducks have had the best powerplay in the league while converting 31% of the time. The Hawks rank fifth with a 20% conversion rate. On the penalty kill, the Ducks currently rank fifth, and the Hawks twelfth. After leading the NHL in PK percentage for most of the season, the Blackhawks saw their penalty kill percentage significantly drop over the final month. They haven’t really turned that trend around yet this postseason. Scoring on the powerplay could prove to be a huge part of this series.
- Goaltending. This one’s kind of obvious, but needs to be mentioned. You can’t win the Cup without receiving stellar goaltending. Both goalies in this series are coming in hot. The question becomes who will falter?
- Experience. Here is where Chicago has a big advantage. Their players and coaches have been here before, and most of them have won at least one Stanley Cup. The same cannot be said of the Ducks or their coaches. Bruce Boudreau is making his first ever appearance in a Conference Final, and it will be interesting to see whether or not he can come close to matching the smarts of Joel Quenneville in this series. Aside from that, having been here many times before should give the Blackhawks an advantage when it comes to winning on the road. The Hawks always get at least one important road victory per series.
After all of that, here’s my prediction.
The top two lines of each team will play to a draw, or close to it, in this series, and the Blackhawks will receive the better production from their bottom two lines than the Ducks. Defensively, the Hawks’ forwards will burn the Ducks d-men and create an abundance of scoring chances; something that Andersen has not been used to these playoffs. This isn’t the Calgary Flames anymore that Anaheim is going up against… Unless Andersen plays out of his mind, the Hawks should see some great offensive production. The team defense of the Hawks is very good, and should limit the number of good chances against Corey Crawford. As long as Crawford comes up with the necessary saves, the Hawks should be alright.
Depth, overall team defense, and experience should put the Blackhawks over the top against the Ducks.
Hawks in six.