Blackhawks vs. Ducks: Preview and Prediction for 2015 Western Conference Final
The battles for the Central and Pacific divisions are over.
In the Central, perhaps the NHL's toughest division, the Chicago Blackhawks once again emerged from a crowded field, knocking off a Nashville team with one of the best defensive groups in hockey and then a Wild squad that was the best team in the league down the stretch.
On the West Coast, the Anaheim Ducks entered the playoffs with the No. 1 seed and quickly established themselves as the Pacific's dominant team, knocking off Winnipeg and Calgary and losing just a single game in the process.
Neither team is a surprising presence here in the Western Conference Final. 2015 marks the third consecutive year the Blackhawks have come at least this far, and the fifth time in the last seven seasons they've achieved the feat. Anaheim was a Presidents' Trophy contender during the season and came out firing on all cylinders in the playoffs.
The following slideshow breaks down the two best teams in the West, looking at what happened in the second round, identifying key players and stories and forecasting what we might see in Round 3. Read on for our comprehensive preview.
The Ducks jumped out to an early lead over Calgary, crushing the Flames by a combined 9-1 score in the series' first two games in Anaheim. The games got decidedly closer afterward, with the Ducks winning then losing an overtime contest and prevailing in a tight Game 4 after trailing in the first half of the contest. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry were terrifying, combining for 16 points over the five-game series.
Most of the games were close, but the series itself wasn't. Chicago won three of four games by a single goal and ended up sweeping the Minnesota Wild as a result. Patrick Kane led the way offensively, scoring five goals in the series and recording six points, while Corey Crawford emphatically reclaimed his starting job in net with an exceptional performance.
How will the Ducks fare against a legitimately elite opponent?
Anaheim deserves full marks for its wins over Winnipeg and Calgary, but with due respect to those two teams, neither is anything like Chicago. Prior to this season, the Flames hadn't played a postseason game in six years and hadn't won a playoff round in better than a decade, while the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets franchise is still searching for the first postseason win in its history.
The Blackhawks are a different beast entirely. The Flames and Jets have combined for 15 playoff series wins in their respective histories. If Chicago beats Anaheim in Round 3, it will match that total solely with its achievements since the 2007-08 season. The Ducks need to show now that they can go head-to-head with a truly battle-hardened opponent.
Will Corey Crawford hold in the Chicago net?
Crawford has been brilliant since replacing Scott Darling in the decisive game against Nashville. Over that span, he has a perfect 5-0 record and a glorious 0.951 save percentage.
Crawford, however, is not without his flaws. He struggled early in the playoffs, and Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was forced to start Darling for most of Chicago's series against the Predators. Crawford has a Stanley Cup win as a starter, but he's also been lit up at times, like during last year's third-round loss to L.A., when he allowed four or more goals in five of the series' seven games.
If Anaheim can get to Crawford early, expect this to become one of the series' dominant stories. If the Ducks can't, that's going to be noteworthy too.
Players to Watch
Perry is an obvious choice, but it's impossible to pass him up here. He has recorded 15 points in just nine games, along with seven goals, and the most incredible thing is that his shooting percentage isn't even terribly inflated. He's been a one-man wrecking crew in this postseason and a dominant offensive player on a team loaded with capable contributors.
The defenseman almost certain to be tasked with shutting down Anaheim's brilliant top line is Niklas Hjalmarsson.
While Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook tend to get the lion's share of the attention, Hjalmarsson has quietly been taking on the toughest competition in Chicago for years. He is among the very best defensemen in hockey, and if it's possible for a team as thoroughly covered as the Blackhawks to have an underrated player, he's the guy who deserves the distinction.
Shutting down Perry and Ryan Getzlaf is going to be vital for the 'Hawks, and Hjalmarsson is likely to be the key to that.
Andersen didn't fare well in his playoff debut last year, but he's been efficient as Anaheim's starter through two first-round routs, posting a 0.925 save percentage and holding the opposition to two goals or fewer in seven of his nine starts. One statistical item worth noting is that he's seen 30-plus shots just twice so far in the playoffs and will be tested with much greater frequency in Round 3.
In a conversation with Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times, Ducks' forward Ryan Kesler credited Andersen's serene style with keeping the team level:
That's why he's such a good goalie. Even when we don't have our game and we're scrambling, he calms us all down by the way he plays. He's not scrambling in there. He puts his body in front of the puck and calms everything down for us.
That Crawford is a solid NHL goalie isn't really disputable. He has an extensive track record behind him and some moments of genuine greatness. He's certainly been good enough to give the Blackhawks a chance at winning games.
Kevin Woodley's excellent analysis for NHL.com prior to the start of Round 2 identified some key strengths and weaknesses in Crawford's game, notably highlighting his tendency to drop into the butterfly while delaying other movement when he's struggling.
"Crawford reacts from his knees more," Woodley wrote, describing what generally goes wrong when Crawford is struggling, "defaulting down to more of a blocking butterfly before reaching out to perimeter shots with his legs and back up and out with his hands."
Crawford has been famously criticized for his poor glove hand (a Google search reveals hundreds of thousands of hits on the subject), and Woodley has previously noted that some of his problems in that area stem from this over-reliance on the butterfly during his struggles.
If all of this sounds really bad for the Blackhawks, it's worth going back to the opening paragraph. Crawford has been victimized at times, but he's also been the starter for one of the most successful teams in the league in recent years, and he has had far more good series than bad ones.
If there's one thing the Ducks have that the Blackhawks don't, it's size.
It's been true all season. The Globe and Mail hockey writer James Mirtle assesses every NHL team by size, weight and age on his personal blog at the start of every season, and in it, Anaheim ranked first in average weight at just over 210 pounds, while Chicago ranked 29th at under 197 pounds.
Chicago has managed to win plenty of series as the smaller team, defying the mantra voiced by countless NHL analysts that a combination of size and skill always trumps skill alone, so it's far from a certainty that this mismatch will allow Anaheim to win the series.
Still, it's certainly an area where the Ducks and Blackhawks differ.
Ducks Will Win If They Continue to Dominate Close Games
The Ducks carved a remarkable season out of their ability to get mileage from a single goal.
During the year, Anaheim went 33-1-7 in games decided by one goal. That 0.805 win percentage was the best in the NHL. They have continued that trend in the postseason, winning three out of four close contests through the first two rounds.
Chicago's been pretty good at this during the playoffs, going 6-0 in close games, but they weren't anywhere near that during the season.
Given the quality of these two teams, there should be a lot of contests where the outcome is in doubt, and if the Ducks can replicate their regular-season success in this department, they'll come out on top.
Blackhaws Will Win If Their Forward Depth Has an Impact
The terrifying thing about Chicago is that once all of the team's top-end talent is out of the way, the Blackhawks have a legion of exceptional depth pieces.
Antoine Vermette, previously a top centre for Arizona, has been a healthy scratch in these playoffs. So have Kris Versteeg, who posted 34 points in 61 games this season, and top prospect Teuvo Teravainen.
Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell are averaging less than 15 minutes per game. Six everyday forwards have played more than Patrick Sharp, a gifted offensive weapon who has nine points in 10 playoff games this spring.
It goes without saying that the battle between the stars on either side is going to be incredibly compelling. But the 'Hawks have the advantage of depth players that they don't mind matching against Corey Perry or Ryan Getzlaf defensively, and other depth players who can light up an opponent's lesser lights.
Regardless of regular-season results that saw the Ducks finish seven points ahead of the 'Hawks, Chicago has to be regarded as the favourite here.
The Blackhawks have proven time and again that they can get the job done in the playoffs. They have elite offensive and defensive forwards and elite offensive and defensive defensemen. They have ridiculous depth up front and a goalie who has shown time and again that he is resilient in the face of adversity. They are a complete team and perhaps the best club in hockey over the last decade.
Playoff fatigue would normally favour the Ducks, as Chicago has played a lot of hockey over the last few seasons, but a short second round in the West favours a Blackhawks team that should be refreshed after the time off.
This is a series that could go either way. Anaheim is an excellent team and almost disinterestedly swatted aside its first-round opponents. Chicago, though, is the team to beat.
Prediction: The Blackhawks win in six games.