Here we go again: Game 7

15-_DSC2491-toresizeFor the third straight postseason, the Blackhawks will be playing a Game 7 as they take on the Ducks tonight in Anaheim at 7:00pm CT. Two years ago, it was the Blackhawks defeating the Red Wings in overtime at the United Center to advance to the Western Conference Final. Last year, 363 days ago to be exact, the Kings sent the Hawks home in overtime, yet again, of Game 7 at the United Center. Joel Quenneville recently described that loss as “the worst of our lives.” Tonight, the Blackhawks have the chance to redeem themselves and earn a trip to the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in six seasons.

This series between the Ducks and Hawks has been one for the ages. We’ve seen two multiple overtime games, one single overtime game, and three other relatively close games. Each team has one road victory and has proven that they are worthy of winning this series.

For the Blackhawks to win this game, they will need to draw upon the things that they accomplished in their Game 6 victory. Those things, among others, include:

  • Rolling all four lines
  • Getting big performances from the star players
  • Playing responsible, tight defense
  • Winning the board battles
  • Good goaltending from Corey Crawford
  • Playing with energy and intensity

Game 6 was a clinic by the Hawks. They didn’t come out guns blazing like Anaheim was expecting them to. Instead they seemed to sit back, wait for Anaheim to make a mistake, and then pounced. Once they finally “pounced” and scored the game’s first goal, they took their game to the next level and scored two more times within just a few minutes. They earned a 3-0 lead in the game (which was brought to 3-2 by the Ducks) and never looked back. Tonight, we need more of the same.

Scoring first will be big yet again. It isn’t necessarily imperative, but it would sure be nice. Getting the game’s first goal will not only give the Hawks momentum, but it will put the Ducks on their heels and quiet the Anaheim crowd (not that they’re that loud anyways). The Blackhawks are a much better hockey team while playing with the lead than they are when playing catch up.

Quenneville appears to be sticking with his nuclear line of Saad, Toews, and Kane to start the game. This line was rather dominant in Game 6, and there’s no reason why that should change tonight. The only difference now is that Bruce Boudreau and the Ducks will have the last change. Odds are that Boudreau will want Ryan Kesler matched up against the Toews line, which is something he wasn’t able to do very often in Game 6. Kesler was doing an okay job of defending Toews and his mates through the first five games, but with Kane now a part of that trio, it’s a new animal to try and handle. If this line gets off to a good start, things should be looking alright for the Hawks.

The key to tonight’s game could lie with the Blackhawks’ second line of Bickell, Richards, and Hossa. This line had a difficult time getting much going last game (despite producing the Hawks’ second goal) and often found themselves pinned in their own end for long stretches of time. While Hossa is an elite two-way forward, Bickell and Richards are not. It will be key for these guys to put together good shifts and not get stuck playing defense the whole night. Odds are that they will probably see a lot of the Getzlaf-Perry line.

As for the Hawks’ third and fourth lines, those guys continue to put pressure on Andersen and the Ducks’ defense with regularity. Those two lines have come up with a number of big goals in this series, and another one or two (or more) tonight wouldn’t hurt.

Defensively, Duncan Keith will need to dig deep yet again and lead the way. His performance in Game 6 was one for the ages, and if he can do anything close to that again tonight, the Blackhawks will be in good shape.

David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey both turned in good performances last game, and they’ll need to do so again tonight. Granted, Quenneville won’t be able to protect them as much as he could at home by giving them offensive zone starts all the time, but if these two can play solid games, then they’ll have done their job.

In net, Corey Crawford now owns the best save percentage of any goalie to make the Conference Finals. He has turned in clutch performances in big playoff games before, and the Hawks will need him to do it again. Expect the Ducks to come out of the gates going 100 miles per hour tonight, meaning Crawford will have his work cut out for him. It is imperative that he makes some big time saves without letting in any soft goals.

Most seventh games end up being rather low scoring as neither team wants to take too many chances that could lead to disasters going the other way. I’m not saying tonight will be the same, but don’t be surprised if it is. Anticipate seeing both teams play conservative games similar to what you see in overtime. I’ll be shocked if the Ducks try and play a super physical game tonight because that can lead to players being caught out of position. Their goal in being as physical as they were through the first six games was to wear the Blackhawks down for Game 7. Now that we’re at Game 7, the Ducks will probably ease off the physicality aspect of their game with the hopes that their hitting earlier in the series did it’s job (I doubt that it did).

As I am writing this, my heart is already trying to escape my body, and we’re still an hour and a half from puck drop. Game 7’s, while they are the most entertaining games for fans, are the worst for fans of the two teams playing. It is literally three straight hours of feeling like you’re going to throw up. Luckily for us Blackhawks fans, we’ve become quite experienced in these types of huge games (as have the Hawks’ players) and know how to handle them better than most other fan bases.

Given what this roster of Blackhawks players has gone through in past postseasons whether they’ve won or lost, I am confident that they will come out as the more prepared team tonight and deliver a victory.

Takeaways from Blackhawks’ Game 5 loss; Looking ahead

10-171460575-smallThe storylines now surrounding Game 5 between the Blackhawks and Ducks are pretty straight forward and don’t need much more recognition. Anaheim struck three times in the first period to take a 3-0 lead in the game, only to have the Blackhawks come storming back and tie it with less than a minute left in regulation thanks in large part to the miracle that was pulled off by Jonathan Toews. The game would head to overtime, again, and the Ducks’ Matt Beleskey scored the game winner just 45 seconds in. Ducks 5, Blackhawks 4, with the series headed back to Chicago for a now must win Game 6 for the Hawks.

Here’s what you should know about why the Blackhawks lost the pivotal fifth game:

  • First and foremost, that opening period was dreadful. It was probably the single worst period of the season for the Blackhawks. They came out flatter than the Great Plains and watched Anaheim skate circles around them with the puck. It was embarrassing to say the least. The Hawks managed just three shots on goal in the period, with their first one coming late in the frame. Only they know why they came out so slow and disinterested, and we can only hope we never see that again. As a result, the Ducks netted three goals and probably could have had a couple more.
  • The Blackhawks had a lot of trouble clearing the puck out of their own zone/getting the puck in deep to Anaheim’s end, and this directly resulted in at least three goals for the Ducks. The two most notable instances of this were the Ducks’ fourth and fifth goals. On their fourth goal, Kimmo Timonen chipped the puck to Patrick Sharp along the half boards to Corey Crawford’s right. Instead of then moving the puck into open ice up the middle and out of the zone, Sharp tried to get it out along the boards. The Ducks held it in and pulled off a spectacular goal thanks to some incredible passing. On the fifth and game-winning goal, Bryan Bickell had the puck just over the center ice line and simply needed to dump it into the Ducks’ end so that the Hawks could get a line change. Instead of making the sure and safe play, he chose to take a slap shot (presumably directed at Frederik Andersen) that hit a Duck defenseman, dropped right to the stick of Jakob Silfverberg, and the next thing you knew Anaheim had a two on one going the other way. Game over. Those plays cannot happen if you’re Sharp and Bickell.
  • Speaking of Bryan Bickell, how awful has he been? He’s getting out-muscled along the boards with regularity and is providing next to nothing for the Hawks. There’s no way that the coaching staff isn’t noticing this. Maybe his costly turnover in overtime last night will finally get him benched. In his defense, it looks like he’s playing injured and that could have something to do with his ineffectiveness. If that’s the case, he shouldn’t be playing. Dress Versteeg, Nordstrom, or even Ryan Hartman. Someone who can actually contribute to the team. At this stage of the series, Joel Quenneville should be putting his absolute best lineup on the ice.
  • No one should be blaming Corey Crawford for this loss. He had no chance on either of the Ducks’ first two or last two goals, and was likely screened on their third. He came up with some huge saves in the first period and never really looked bad in the game. It was his teammates that hung him out to dry.
  • Lastly, the powerplay of the Hawks wasn’t good enough. They were 0/2 with the man advantage. They did generate a few chances, but never found the net. They have GOT to start scoring on the powerplay if they want to come back and win this thing. Not to keep picking on Bryan Bickell, but he shouldn’t be on the second PP unit. I know he’s a big body that can park in front of the net, but he can’t do anything else. Teuvo Teravainen, who just keeps getting better and better, should take his spot. He’s a play-maker creates scoring chances, and that’s what the second unit is lacking.

Looking ahead to Game 6, the Blackhawks really should have some confidence in themselves. If they had even shown up just a little bit in the first period of Game 5, they probably win the game. They dominated the final 40 minutes and found a way to tie the game after trailing 3-0 at one point.

Jonathan Toews did another Jonathan Toews thing by scoring two goals in the final two minutes to tie the game. It was truly a miraculous finish to regulation. I’m not a huge believer in momentum carrying over from one game to the next, but the fact that the Blackhawks were able to outplay the Ducks over the final two periods and erase a 3-0 deficit in Game 5 should make them feel pretty good about themselves heading into Game 6 on home ice.

The Blackhawks are not a team that gets rattled or “scared” while facing elimination. Jonathan Toews even said following last night’s loss that the Hawks almost seem to play better when their backs are up against the wall. We’ve seen them come back in series multiple times before, and I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if they find a way to do it again now. If you’re looking for someone who might be scared, look in the direction of Frederik Andersen. He was awful in Game 5, and maybe his confidence is diminishing. If I’m the Hawks, I’m shooting early and often in Game 6.

Knowing that with a loss they’ll be sent packing, I am fully expecting the Blackhawks to come out with everything they’ve got on home ice Wednesday night. Win that game and force Anaheim to defend home ice in a Game 7 yet again. In case you forgot, the Ducks were in this exact same position last year against L.A. in the second round. The Kings took Game 6, and then proceeded to blow out the Ducks in Anaheim in Game 7.

It won’t be easy, but there’s no reason why the Blackhawks should doubt their chances of coming back and winning this series.

Keys to a Blackhawks Game 5 victory

15-_DSC2491-toresizeAfter winning a crazy Game 4 in double overtime to even this best of seven series at two games apiece, the Blackhawks will take the ice in Anaheim tonight in Game 5 looking to bring a 3-2 series lead back home for Wednesday. Both of the Blackhawks’ victories in this series have come in multiple overtime games, something this team has become accustomed to in recent years. In fact, the Hawks are the first team in NHL history to win four multiple overtime games in one postseason. This is a resilient group that doesn’t seem to ever be fazed by adversity.

After losing Game 2 of this series in triple overtime, many thought that the Ducks would be somewhat demoralized and surely lose Game 3. That did not happen as they went on to win that game by a score of 2-1. After losing Game 4 in double overtime, now their second multiple OT loss of the series, one has to wonder if Anaheim will be down on themselves heading into tonight’s game. Odds are that they’re not, but losing two games in this series in the fashion that they did is not easy to overcome. With the series now shifting back to California, however, one should assume that the Ducks have forgotten about Game 4.

In this series, each team has had extended stretches in which they have controlled the game. Both sides are probably thinking that they’ve been the better team than the other. The truth of the matter is that these are two very evenly matched teams, and frankly, this series could go either way at this point.

So heading into tonight’s fifth game, let’s take a look at five keys to a Blackhawks’ victory.

  1. Score first. The team that has scored the first goal in the game has won each game this series. That’s not to say this will continue, but playing from behind is much more difficult than playing while ahead. With this game being in Anaheim, the Blackhawks do not want the Ducks getting the first lead. Anaheim thrives on home ice while winning.
  2. Good special teams. The Blackhawks’ powerplay has been both good and bad this series. The two games in which they’ve notched a powerplay goal, they’ve won. Anaheim is a team that clearly likes to be physical and get involved in extra-curricular nonsense. Those two traits often lead to more penalties for them compared to their opponent. If the Ducks are going to continue taking bad penalties, the Blackhawks have to make them pay. Scoring at even strength against this team is no easy task, so taking advantage of being up a man will be big. Also, the Hawks’ penalty kill has been better during this series than either of the first two. It goes without saying that killing off their penalties is hugely important, especially at this stage of the series. If the Blackhawks can win the special teams play tonight, they should win the game.
  3. Continue rolling four lines. Arguably the biggest strength of the Blackhawks is the fact that they have four lines that can generate offense while being responsible defensively. After messing up his lines in Game 3 (a game in which the Hawks’ offense looked lost), Quenneville went back to his original lines from games 1 and 2 for Game 5. The result? Four lines that put heavy pressure on the Ducks’ defense and Frederik Andersen. The two overtime goals scored by the Hawks in this series have come from their fourth and third lines respectively. They need all four lines to continue doing what they’ve been doing. The Toews line seems to have picked up some momentum recently, and hopefully they can carry that into tonight.
  4. Get good minutes from the defensemen. So much has been made of the fact that the Hawks are really only using four d-men right now. While no one can deny that their top four defensemen are logging heavy minutes, I will say that those four guys are not as worn out as the media and Ducks players are making them sound. That being said, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Oduya need to keep up their strong efforts. Getting productive minutes out of Cumiskey and Timonen will be key as well.
  5. Corey Crawford. He always seems to step up in big games and deliver. With so much at stake in this game, there’s no question that Anaheim will come out flying tonight, and Corey Crawford will need to make some big saves. We’ve seen him do it many times before, and he’ll need to do it again.

The Ducks have done a lot of talking over the past couple days about how they know they’re wearing down the Blackhawks with their physical play. They’re doing so much talking about that subject that it almost seems like they’re doing whatever they can to make themselves feel good about where they’re at. I am really starting to wonder if they haven’t become distracted by the fact that the Hawks are taking so many hits without really showing any symptoms of being worn down.

Also, I’ve never seen a team more concerned with trying to get in the heads of their opponent than the Ducks. Every single time Ryan Kesler is on the ice, he’s either chirping or doing something else towards a Blackhawk to try and get in their head. It’s almost as though he’s more worried about that than he is the actual game. The same can be said of Corey Perry.

The Ducks are a team that tends to lose their cool when things aren’t going well (much like the Blues). If the Blackhawks get a late lead in this game tonight and are controlling the play, it’s definitely realistic to think Anaheim might start taking dumb penalties out of frustration. If this happens, the Hawks need to make them pay.

This is a pivotal game and one that would be massive for the Hawks to win. As I’ve said many times, there isn’t another team in hockey more equipped to handle the pressure of and win big games.

Blackhawks drop Game 1

10-171460575-smallSo after nine days off since eliminating the Minnesota Wild, the Blackhawks finally got back into game action this afternoon against the Ducks. Many people wondered whether the long layoff would help or hurt the Hawks, and I think it’s safe to say after one game that it did not hurt them. You may look at the score and see that Anaheim won the game by a score of 4-1, but that isn’t an accurate reading as to how this first game actually went.

The first period was absolutely dominated by the Hawks. They were faster, smarter, and simply better than Anaheim in almost every facet of the game. Yet Hampus Lindholm converted on a nice set-up by Jakob Silfverberg to put Anaheim on the board just under nine minutes into the game. After the first period, the Ducks led 1-0, but were being outshot 16-7.

The second period saw a lot of the same. The Blackhawks controlled the play, put Frederik Andersen under some intense pressure, and didn’t allow many chances for the Ducks. However, after David Rundblad failed to clear the puck from the Hawks’ zone, Kyle Palmieri scored to give the Ducks a 2-0 lead with 15:43 left in the period. Then with under a minute remaining in the second, Brad Richards made a nice play to strip the puck from Francois Beauchmin at the Anaheim blue line and proceeded to skate in on Andersen and score. This was a huge goal at the time as it put the Hawks within one heading into the third.

In the final period, Anaheim slowed the game down a bit and never really gave the Blackhawks much to work with at even strength. The Ducks would end up getting goals from Nate Thompson and Jakob Silfverberg (empty netter) to seal the deal.

So, what should we take away from the first game of this series?

  • First and foremost, the Blackhawks were the better team in Game 1. They dominated most of the game and forced Frederik Andersen to make some unbelievable saves, which he did. If the Hawks can control the games moving forward like they did today, they’ll see some better outcomes. It’s not often that a team gets outplayed like the Ducks did and wins.
  • The Hawks MUST get better on the powerplay. They were 0-3 in the game, including two straight powerplays at the beginning of the third period while only down one goal. They generated a few nice chances while on the man advantage, but for the most part weren’t getting much going. They need to quit trying to make the perfect passes and simply shoot the puck. Get some rebounds out of Andersen and knock home a dirty goal. The playoffs are all about getting the “greasy” goals from in front of the net.
  • Anaheim’s top line of Maroon, Getzlaf, and Perry was relatively quiet in Game 1. Yet they still won the game. If the Blackhawks continue keeping the Ducks’ top line off the score sheet, they should be alright. That doesn’t mean they can forget about Anaheim’s bottom two lines. Those lines haven’t produced much in the playoffs, but they did today and have the potential to do it again.
  • The Blackhawks got some solid play out of all of their forward lines today. The only problem was that they simply couldn’t catch a break. While I don’t think it’s necessary for Quenneville to panic and start switching up the line combos, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do so if Game 2 starts off on the wrong foot.
  • Kyle Cumiskey should start preparing as though he will be dressing on Tuesday night. David Rundblad got beat on the Ducks’ first goal and then turned the puck over in his own end leading to Anaheim’s second goal. It was a pretty awful first 30 minutes of the game for him. He did make a couple nice plays after that, but his tendency to commit costly turnovers is so obvious that Quenneville would be totally justified in benching him. Cumiskey played great down in Rockford this season and brings a ton of speed to the back end. This is something to keep an eye on.
  • Lastly, I thought Corey Crawford was fine today. He never really saw the first goal and had no chance on the second. The third could have been stopped, but again it was not an easy save to make. As long as Crow makes the necessary saves, the Hawks should still be alright.

Overall, I wouldn’t get too worried about this loss. The Blackhawks were the far better team. If they keep turning in performances like this one, they’ll see some victories pile up. Their goal in heading out to California was to win one of the first two games. That can still happen on Tuesday. And judging by how hostile the Honda Center was today, let’s just say the atmosphere shouldn’t do anything to impede the Hawks from winning a game out there (I’ve never head an NHL arena so quiet for a playoff game. There are stadiums around the league that are three times louder for regular season games.).

Game 2 is Tuesday. The Blackhawks need a victory, and I’m rather confident they’ll get it.