Heading into the playoffs, doubters were saying the Blackhawks were a veteran team reaching for a fastball it no longer had. But it’s been just the opposite so far.
Responding to a heightened challenge against a Minnesota Wild team geared up for its best shot yet against them, the Hawks reached a new level in the second round. They swept the series without ever trailing — a feat not even their championship teams could accomplish.
The challenge in the Western Conference final — whenever it begins — is to reach yet another level against the Anaheim Ducks, who are the No. 1 seed in the conference and have more firepower than the Wild. Against the Hawks, the Wild went 0-for-4 on breakaways. With Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf & Co., the Ducks are much more likely to make the Hawks pay.
“As the games get tougher, we know that we have to get to that next level,” Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “We need to keep pushing harder and harder.”
That’s something the Hawks have done well throughout their run as Stanley Cup contenders under Joel Quenneville — improve with each series. But they’re not taking it for granted that it will happen here despite the way they fended off the Wild’s increasing level of desperation in Games 3 and 4 to close out the sweep.
“Obviously, we have confidence we can win games on the road or even at home,” Toews said, “whether we have a team down 2-0 or 3-0 and they’re playing with their backs against the wall and we still have that hunger to go out there and outplay them. But I don’t think you want to take too much from that series. You can’t go into the next one taking it for granted for one second — because that can definitely hurt you.”
Like other showdowns with talented teams, the conference final figures to be a battle of depth more than anything else. The Hawks have proven adept at handling a hot line, even one as productive as the Ducks’ top line of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrick Maroon.
It takes more than that to beat the Hawks and the Ducks have depth, with a strong second line with Ryan Kesler (one goal, four points vs. Calgary) — a nemesis from the classic Vancouver series of 2009-11 — and wingers Matt Beleskey (five goals vs. Calgary) and Jakob Silfverberg (one goal, five points vs. Calgary); and a third line that could be an x-factor: Andrew Cogliano, Ricard Rakell and Kyle Pamieri.
That usually where the Hawks win or lose it. In last year’s conference final, the Hawks for the most part contained the top line of Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Martin Gaborik. It was the third line of Tyler Toffoli, Jeff Carter and Tanner Pearson that beat them. Even in the 2013 Final, the Hawks contained the Bruins’ red-hot top line of Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Nathan Norton. It was third/fourth-liners Daniel Paille, Tyler Seguin and Chris Kelly who were most responsible for putting the Hawks in the 2-1 series hole the eventually climbed out of.
“I think the [Ducks’] top line is always something you’ve got to be aware of,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “That other line [Beleskey-Kesler-Silfverberg] is very effective and dangerous last night [against Calgary in Game 5]. Going into their building, got a pretty good idea of how the matchups are gonna to be. We’ll see how that all plays itself out.I think the four-line depth is going to be important for both teams.”
Coming off the impressive sweep of the Wild, the Hawks’ lines are as set as they’ve ever been at this stage: Brandon Saad-Toews-Marian Hossa; Bryan Bickell-Brad Richards-Patrick Kane; Patrick Sharp-Antoine Vermette-Teuvo Teravainen; and Andrew Desjardins-Marcus Kruger-Andrew Shaw.
The Hawks are going in with confidence, but a healthy respect for the Ducks, who arguably are just as talented and deep as they are. Both teams have every right to believe if they play their game, they’ll win. But that is always easier said than done against the Hawks, and the Ducks.
“They’re a beatable team,” Shaw said. “They’re great, but we need to play our game, stick to our systems and just outwork our opponent and we should have success.”
The Hawks vs. the Ducks figures to be an interesting battle of matchups and depth. It often comes down to which of these talented teams can impose its will and play the game it most likes to play. The Hawks are comfortable being in that situation.
“They have a great team,” Saad said. “They have a great forecheck and they’re big and physical, and they play a good puck-possession game. It’s going to be a bettle. It’s not going to come easy and we’re going to have to be patient like these past couple of series.