Blackhawks – Ducks preview

Patrick Kane, Frederik AndersenThis 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.

Blackhawks force Game 6

139990-330-0It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but the Blackhawks won Game 5 of the Western Conference Final on home ice to avoid elimination and send the series to a sixth game in LA. Down 3-1 in the series to the Kings, the Hawks knew they had to come out in Game 5 with their best effort to avoid being sent packing, and while they didn’t quite play with what appeared to be their best effort through the first 40 minutes, the next 43 minutes looked more like it.

Brent Seabrook’s powerplay goal less than two minutes into the game provided the Hawks with a huge spark, and they somewhat took off from their. Moments later, Johnny Oduya made it 2-0 after knocking home the rebound off a shot by Patrick Kane. The Kings would score to make it 2-1, but then Brandon Saad countered that with a goal of his own to reestablish the two-goal lead. Patrick Kane ended the first period with three assists.

The Kings would eventually score the next three goals in the game to go up 4-3 on the Hawks heading into the final frame.

Knowing that they must at least end the third period tied, the Hawks came out buzzing and Ben Smith scored 1:17 into the period to tie it up at 4 apiece. The rest of the period was pretty much all Chicago, but they couldn’t get another puck by Quick, sending Game 5 to overtime.

The first overtime was quite possibly one of the best overtime periods the NHL has seen in recent memory. The Hawks and Kings traded chance after chance with one another, while both Corey Crawford and Jonathan Quick made big save after big save. Anze Kopitar actually beat Crawford on a shot, but it rang off the pipe and left the game tied at 4. A second overtime period was needed for the second straight year in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final between the Hawks and Kings.

940-couture-loganOnce overtime number two began, it didn’t take long until Michal Handzus, of all people, scored the game winner on a beautiful backhand after a great feed from Brandon Saad left Zus all alone in front of Quick (Patrick Kane picked up his fourth assist of the game on the goal). Just like that, the series was sent back to LA for Game 6.

While the Blackhawks gained some obvious momentum with their thrilling OT victory in Game 5, they are still going to need to bring their absolute best effort to beat the Kings on their home ice with LA looking to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. Effort, and a few line changes could very well propel the Hawks to victory and make Game 7 a reality.

Here’s what needs to happen for the Hawks to avoid elimination again:

  • Kris Versteeg should not be dressed for Game 6. He was benched a little over halfway through the second period of Game 5 and never saw the ice again after that. He is becoming WAY too much of a liability on the ice to keep him in the lineup. Peter Regin should take his spot and play with on a line with Sharp and Handzus.
  • While I would like to see Brandon Bollig join Versteeg, it won’t happen. Quenneville won’t put Jeremy Morin (a rookie) into the lineup in an elimination game.
  • The Blackhawks’ powerplay HAS to convert in Game 6. It did in Game 5 and it provided them with a ton of momentum right off the bat.
  • Speaking of special teams, the Hawks’ PK was good in Game 5 and did not allow a goal against. That needs to happen again in LA.
  • Corey Crawford has to play his best game of the series. It’s that simple.
  • The Hawks’ defensemen have got to start boxing out Kings players in front of the net (I’m looking at you Seabrook…). There have been way too many goals scored by the Kings this series that could have been prevented if they were simply boxed out in front of Crawford and not allowed the inside position on a rebound.

Like always, I could continue going on and on, but I’ll leave it at that for now. If the Blackhawks can do those things I mentioned above, we’ll be talking about a Game 7. It won’t be easy though, as the Kings know they do not want to come back to Chicago. As Drew Doughty put it earlier today (Thursday), “We know we can’t let it go to Game 7. We need to win [Game 6].”

So do the Hawks.

Now or never

940-toews-jonathan-8colAfter dropping Game 3 to the Kings on Saturday night in LA, the Blackhawks now trail in the series two games to one. Despite playing a solid first 40 minutes in Game 3 much like they did in Game 2, the Hawks went silent for the final 20 and lost as a result. They know it’s time to step up and put together their best 60 minute effort of the season, or else they’ll be eye-to-eye with the exit door from the playoffs. It’s now or never for the Hawks.

Here is what needs to happen in Game 4 in order for the Blackhawks to even up this Western Conference Final at two games apiece.

  • It’s time that Joel Quenneville reunites Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on the top line. I was calling for this to happen heading into Game 3, but now it’s really time to make the move. The Blackhawks need Kane to get hot, and what better way to help that happen than by putting him back on a line with Toews? Over the years during rough stretches of the playoffs, this has been Quenneville’s go-to move to get the Hawks back on the right track. He did it going into Game 4 in LA last year, and it worked beautifully. He did it in Game 4 in Boston during last year’s Stanley Cup Final, and it worked there as well. By reuniting Kane and Toews, the Kings won’t be able to blanket either player. If they do, then they’re risking leaving the other uncovered, which is not a good thing. Also, it opens up the chance to place Hossa and Sharp back on the second line together, another move that was made going into Game 4 against LA last year that worked like a charm.
  • Michal Handzus cannot center the second line any longer, or at least while Kane is on that line. If Q does put Kane on the top line and Sharp and Hossa on the second, it is possible that he leave Handzus with Sharp and Hossa. That trio did some good things last postseason. However, the lack of speed and offensive skill that you get with Handzus is so alarming that I wouldn’t mind seeing either Smith or Shaw center Sharp and Hossa, despite the success Handzus had with 10 and 81 last year. If Kane does remain on the second line with Sharp, then there is absolutely no way Handzus can stay on that line. Kane needs to play with fast, skilled players in order for him to be effective. Placing Smith or Shaw on his line as the center allows Kane to play with more speed and skill.
  • I’ve been saying this pretty much everyday, but Brandon Bollig needs to go. I don’t know that he even stepped on the ice during the entire third period of Game 3. What good is he to the team if that’s going to happen? In the meantime, you have Peter Regin and Jeremy Morin watching the game as spectators. It’s gotten to the point with Bollig where I’m starting to wonder if the front office (Stan Bowman) isn’t telling Quenneville to keep him in the lineup so that Bowman doesn’t look so bad for handing Bollig a three year extension earlier this season.
  • The Hawks’ penalty kill has to start killing off penalties. They were dominant on the PK through the first two rounds, but now they’ve allowed three powerplay goals to the Kings over the last two games.
  • The Jeff Carter line of the Kings needs to be slowed down. They have torched the Hawks this series, and it’s time Quenneville looks to shut them down. Heading into this series, the Hawks wanted to shut down the Kopitar line, which they have by matching the Toews line against them. Now it might be time to shift their focus to stopping Carter and his linemates. The only potential problem here is this: If Kane is reunited with Toews, then the Hawks lose their “shut down” line of Toews and Hossa.
  • The top line of the Hawks has been good all series, but it’s time that the other three lines quit watching and start playing as well. This series cannot be won by relying on just one line to score all of your goals.
  • Speaking of scoring, the Hawks’ powerplay cost them Game 3. They went 0-4 with the man advantage. They only have two powerplay goals on the road this postseason, which won’t get the job done. It’s time they start finding the back of the net when given the opportunity with an extra man.

Over the past 5-6 years, the Blackhawks have come up with huge win after huge win when they’ve needed it in the playoffs. Tonight calls for another one of those huge wins. If they don’t get it, then they’ll be down 3-1 and on their way out of the playoffs. They need to play a full 60 minutes in Game 4, and they need to step on the Kings’ throats once they get them in a vulnerable position in the game. Some are saying that the Hawks are simply out of gas after all the hockey they’ve played the last two years. While that may be true, if there’s one team who can find another gear and will themselves to victory, it’s the Blackhawks.

A win tonight is imperative for the Hawks.

Western Conference Final prediction

After the first two rounds of the playoffs, I have correctly predicted the outcome of nine of the twelve series played. So far, New York knocking out Pittsburgh has been my biggest upset pick. Hopefully I can keep my hot streak going here.

56 vs. 940-couture-logan

So for the second year in a row, we get a Chicago-LA Western Conference Final. This is a matchup of the last two Stanley Cup winners, and many believe the winner of this series will go on and win the Cup again.

The Kings enter this series fresh off a dominating Game 7 win in Anaheim in which they beat the Ducks by a final of 6-2. I was anticipating the Kings to win that game, but not in that fashion. They are on a tear right now despite needing seven games to dispatch the Ducks. Marian Gaborik has done exactly what the Kings were praying he would do when they acquired him at the trade deadline a couple of months ago. He leads the playoffs with 9 goals, and also has 6 assists to go along with that. He also sits second in the league in points right now with 15, 4 points behind teammate Anze Kopitar. Speaking of Kopitar, this guy is playing in a different world right now. Neither Dallas or Anaheim could figure out a way to slow him down. To beat Chicago, the Kings will need those two guys to keep playing at their current pace. Besides those two, the Kings are one of the deeper teams in hockey at the forward position. They can roll four lines just about as well as anyone in the NHL, and all four of those lines have been valuable to them this postseason as the Kings are averaging the most goals per game of any team. Again, to beat the Blackhawks, they’ll need production from their depth guys. We all know the Kings are a top defensive team in the league, and they are proving that to us yet again right now. After allowing 22 goals in the first round to the Sharks, the Kings allowed just 15 to the Ducks in the second round. They rank fifth in the playoffs in GA/G, but would be higher had they not been asleep through the first 3 games of the first round against San Jose. Drew Doughty is having an excellent postseason defensively, and he is one of their most important players in the offensive zone as well. However, the Kings will need more defensemen than just Doughty to be good offensively if they want to advance. In goal, Jonathan Quick has been decent, but not outstanding like in years past. Going back to last year’s regular season and WCF, he has really struggled against the Hawks. Could Chicago already be in Quick’s head before the series even starts?

As for the Blackhawks, they knocked off the Wild in six games in the second round to get to this point, but it wasn’t easy. The Wild did what the Kings will try and do, and that is win the neutral zone and force the Hawks to play a chip-and-chase game. The Blackhawks need to figure out how to be more effective on the forecheck after chipping pucks into the offensive zone than they were against Minnesota. If they can find a way to use their speed against the Kings and put LA on their heels, that would be ideal for Chicago. To do that, Kane and Toews will need to lead the way yet again. However, without more production from guys like Hossa, Sharp, Saad, and the depth guys, Chicago could find themselves in trouble. They are hoping to get Andrew Shaw back at some point during this series, and they’ll need him. His physical and pesty presence on the ice is key in the playoffs, not to mention his ability to screen goalies on the powerplay. One thing that the Blackhawks absolutely need to do better this series than in the first two is taking less penalties. The Kings can be a dangerous team with the man advantage, so the Hawks won’t want to test them too often. Having said that, the Blackhawks’ penalty kill has been outstanding thus far. They lead the playoffs with a 91.3 penalty kill percentage, and now is not the time for that trend to change. A big reason for that number is the play of Corey Crawford through the first two rounds. Your goalie is your most important man on the PK, and Crawford has come up huge time and time again for the Hawks while shorthanded. This postseason, Crawford has the best save percentage and goals against average of any goalie in the league. While most people will be focusing on Quick this series (as usual), it is Crawford who has actually been the better goalie for the second postseason in a row. He’ll need the help of his defensemen against LA, and so Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Oduya will need to be really good to beat the Kings. How well the pairing of Hjalmarsson and Oduya plays could determine how this series pans out.

This is not the same Kings team that lost to the Blackhawks in 5 games during last year’s Western Conference Final. They are healthy now and have more firepower than they did a year ago. That said, I still don’t think the Blackhawks have played their best game(s) yet. They didn’t really come close to doing so against the Wild, yet still won that series in six games. I’d anticipate the Hawks to take their game to the next level now, and it’ll be on the Kings to try and stop them. If they do, or if the Blackhawks run out of gas after all the hockey they’ve played the last two years, LA will advance. If Chicago does begin to play their game and find some new energy, it’ll be them going on to their second straight Stanley Cup Final.

This should be a good one.

-Chicago wins series, 4-2.

 

NHL Western Conference Finals Preview

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Honestly, who would have thought that THIS would be our Western Conference Finals matchup heading into the playoffs? After the first round of play, I think everyone’s original predictions had been pretty torn apart, but even then, I don’t think many people would have predicted that these two teams would meet in the Conference Final. I had L.A. beating St. Louis in 7 games, so I partially got that one right. The Kings didn’t waste any time in ousting the Blues. As for the other series in the Western Conference, I said that Nashville would prevail in 6 games. Obviously I mis-fired on that one. Either way, here we are with the Coyotes and Kings ready to square off with the chance at playing for the Stanley Cup on the line. Let’s start with Phoenix.

After their first round victory over the Chicago Blackhawks, I get the feeling that many people felt that was as much damage as this team was capable of doing. I felt that same way. Well, I, and some of you, were proven wrong. In their series with Nashville, the Coyotes played phenomenal defense and held the Predators to just 9 goals in the series. A lot of that is due to the play of Mike Smith in net, but I’ll get to him in a little bit. We saw it in the first round against Chicago, and we saw it again against Nashville. The Coyotes are one of the hardest working teams in the NHL. Because of the fact that they do not have a ton of fire power or superstars, each and every player on that roster is forced to give 110% effort every second that they are on the ice to make up for their lack of fire power, as previously mentioned. Their defense has really stepped it up in the playoffs as well. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is turning into a superstar on the blue line. The kid is just 20 years old, but he is playing like a 10 year veteran. On more than one occasion, he has been referred to by hockey analysts as a “future Norris Trophy winner.” That’s how good he has been for the Coyotes in these playoffs. Him, along with Keith Yandle and Rostislav Klesla, have been playing some of the best defense that we have seen this year, which has led to 2 straight playoff series victories. Now, how about the play of Mike Smith in net for the Coyotes? He is third among active goalies still in the playoffs in goals against average, and leads all playoffs goalies this year with 2 shutouts. Without him, Phoenix would not be where they are right now. If they want to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, they need to keep on doing what they have been doing. Their defense needs to stay strong (currently second in goals against per game), and Mike Smith has to continue his hot play in net. Offensively, they cannot rely on getting many “pretty” goals against Jonathan Quick. They will have to find a way to score some ugly goals against L.A. if they want to advance.

The Kings have pretty much rolled through the playoffs thus far, knocking out the number 1 seed Canucks in 5 games, and now the number 2 seed Blues in just 4 games. Jonathan Quick is 8-1 in net for L.A., and ranks first in goals against average. Heading into the playoffs, many people questioned whether the Kings’ offense would be strong enough to beat Vancouver in the first round. Well, it was. Heading into the second round, the same question was asked: “Will their offense continue to produce enough goals against St. Louis’ defense to beat them in a 7 game series?” Again, the Kings proved that their offense is good enough to beat one of the best defensive teams in hockey. Through all of this, no one has really questioned whether or not Jonathan Quick is good enough to beat these teams, and rightfully so. He is a Vezina Trophy finalist, and most people expected him to play that way in the playoffs, which he has more than done. Offensively for the Kings, Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar have led the way, with 11 and 10 points respectively in these playoffs. Brown also leads the team in hits, with 39. The L.A. captain has really stepped up his game through the first two rounds, and they will need him to continue doing so moving forward. If the Kings want to continue their winning ways and eliminate the Coyotes, they need to out-work and wear down Phoenix. Right now, the Coyotes have a ton of confidence heading into this series coming off of their first 2 playoff series victories since moving to Phoenix. The Kings need to come out in Game 1 on the road and play a great game to take away some of the Coyotes’ confidence. If L.A. can continue to produce offensively against yet another top goalie in the league in Mike Smith, they should be just fine in this series. With Jonathan Quick playing the way he has been playing lately, goals will be tough to come by for the Coyotes, who are already somewhat of an offensively challenged team. Along with Quick, the defense in front of him has been playing excellent through the first two rounds (ranked first in goals against average), making it that much tougher for the opposition to score. This team has been firing on all cylinders through the first two rounds, and I don’t expect that to change. This is going to be a very defensive series with not a lot of offense, so special teams will play a huge role in the outcome of this series.

-Los Angeles wins series, 4-2.