Sidney Brown brings his weekly dispatches from the front lines of Chicago Blackhawks fandom every week during the hockey season.
CALIFORNIA, HERE WE COME!!!
For the second consecutive season, the Chicago Blackhawks playoff fate will go thru a team from southern California, but moreso than last season there’s reason for the Hawks to welcome this trip to the West Coast.
Last year a nightmare in black and white came courtesy of the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings, who defeated the Hawks in an epic seven-game showdown. Surprisingly, the Kings didn’t even make the postseason this year, but nearby neighbors the Anaheim Ducks cruised to a tie with St. Louis for the most points in the West in the regular season (109).
Chicago’s 8-2 record so far in the Stanley Cup playoffs is certainly impressive but like in the regular season Anaheim has been a little more dominant, posting an 8-1 record.
While the Ducks earned home ice advantage in this clash of titans (the Hawks actually had home ice against the Kings) for Hawks fans, there is comfort to be taken in this match-up — the Hawks were victorious in two of three games against Anaheim during the regular season and not having home ice against the Nashville Predators in the opening round didn’t make a difference as our friends from Tennessee were dismissed in 6 games.
The Ducks and Hawks have each done well in constructing their rosters to fit their well-defined styles, but the numbers tell a story more one-sided than would be expected, at least in these playoff games.
2015 Playoff Statistics
Goals Per Game: CHI (3.20), ANA (3.89)
Goals Against: CHI (2.80), ANA (2.00)
Power Play Percentage: CHI (20.0), ANA (31.0)
Penalty Kill Percentage: CHI (72.9), ANA (87.1)
Shots Per Game: CHI (32.1), ANA (33.8)
Numbers can’t tell the whole story though, except for wins and losses and both teams are doing a lot more winning than losing, so who has the ultimate advantage in the game’s most crucial areas? Let’s break them down by category.
The Hawks’ superstar Patrick Kane has been a difference-maker since his return from shoulder surgery, scoring at least one point in seven straight playoff games while tallying five goals in the second round series against the Minnesota Wild.
Chicago’s third line, led by Patrick Sharp (4 goals, 5 assists) should see their scoring production increase while Teuvo Teravainen continues to develop his skills under the playoff lights and Antoine Vermette tries to stay consistent in winning face offs.
Expect opportunities from third and fourth-line players like Brandon Saad (3 goals) and Andrew Shaw (1 goal, 4 assists) to arise while Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa receive much of the defensive attention. It will take overlooked stars forcing opponents to pay attention in order for the Hawks to put the right pressure on the Ducks defense.
Anaheim is led by captain Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kessler — a group of stars who can put up goals in an instant and make any defense cringe. The Ducks second line, featuring four goals and five points from Kessler this postseason, has produced steadily as a unit, tallying 7 goals and 7 assists in their second round series against the Calgary Flames.
As hot a scorer as there is remaining in the playoffs, the Ducks’ Matt Beleskey set a franchise playoff record by scoring a goal in five straight games against the Flames while Perry displayed his mettle in the Game 5 series clinching win over Calgary after surviving a huge collision earlier in the contest, Perry came back and scored a huge goal for the Ducks.
As a group of defensemen, the Hawks’ defenders will face their biggest challenge to date after veteran Michal Rozsival suffered a season ending ankle injury in the Game 4 series clincher of the Minnesota Wild.
Rookie David Rundblad will replace Rozsival in the lineup by playing the fifth d-man role. Chicago’s top defenseman are already used to logging heavy minutes, but they may need to pile on a little bit more to keep the Ducks at bay.
Ice Time (2015 Playoffs)
Duncan Keith – 30:37 per game
Niklas Hjalmarsson – 24:39
Johnny Oduya – 24:29
Brent Seabrook – 24:02
Michal Rozsival (Injured) – 17:26
Kimmo Timonen – 9:25
Ducks defenseman have made themselves contributors on the offense end as much as any other with 29 combined points in the playoffs.
Led by top line pair Francois Beauchemin and Hampus Lindholm and their second pair Cam Folwer and Simon Despres, each player has at least 4 assists this postseason, yet Anaheim’s third defensive pair — Sami Vatanen and Clayton Stoner — could be weak links and their ice time could provide opportunities for the Hawks to take advantage with their speed to create multiple scoring opportunities.
Corey Crawford responded from a shaky series against Nashville with an outstanding starring performance in Round 2 against the Minnesota Wild, posting a 5-1 record, a 2.60 goals against average and a save percentage of .916.
Credit is also due to the Hawks defensemen playing excellent in front of Crawford by keeping things simple by not giving up rebounds and not turning the puck over. Crawford’s play in tandem with the D-men must be a constant to keep Anaheim off the scoreboard.
John Gibson was the man in net for the Ducks a year ago, but a bout of the flu has kept him out of this year’s playoffs and relegated to a backup role. Frederick Andersen has taken the reigns, keeping the Ducks in games and compiling all 8 of their postseason wins while marking a 1.96 goals against average and a .925 save percentage.
Prior to seeing Devan Dubnyk in the last round, I predicted the strong stats Minnesota’s goalie put up were due to not facing a team like the Hawks, indeed Dubnyk proved himself unable to deal with Chicago’s increasing pressure over the course of a four-game sweep.
Likewise, Andersen has not faced a talented roster like the Hawks and with the pressure of competing in a conference final also in the mix, the opportunity to crack under the pressure is far greater. The Ducks must limit Chicago’s chances to score around the net but Andersen is likely going to have to make plays he’s never made before to contain the Hawks for a series.
The Ducks have a slight edge here, their man advantage scoring is at 31 percent and with their penalty kill at 87.1%, both besting the Hawks, but the Hawks’ defense has improved tremendously from the opening round and their now stopping their opponents at a 72.7% consistency.
The Hawks have had mixed results with their power play but that mix must transfer more to the positive side when given chances this round. Captain Jonathan Toews leads the team in power play goals with two while Patrick Kane leads the team with four power play assists.
Playing under pressure is nothing new for these two teams and the numbers display it, this series could come down to who steps up when it matters most.
One Goal Games
Ducks: 3-1 in playoffs (33-1-7 in regular season)
Hawks: 6-0 in the playoffs
Who will score most consistently and which goalie will step up and make the big save? Those two questions will be asked in this series as they are in any playoff series, but beyond those essential tipping points Chicago must stay out of the penalty box and play as consistent on the defensive end as on offense while Anaheim must contain Chicago’s speed and take advantage on its own power play.
Will the Hawks prove that last year’s WCF was a one-time disappointment or will Anaheim realize its dreams in reaching their first Stanley Cup Final since 2007? This should and will be a entertaining series to watch.
MY PREDICTION: Hawks in six.
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