Momentum, whatever it is, does exist. Any hockey player will tell you that. It exists within games, and it exists between periods. But it’s debatable whether it exists between games. And it’s unlikely it exists between series. And it sure as heck doesn’t exist right now for either the Blackhawks or the Anaheim Ducks. Not with nine days between series for the Hawks, and six for the Ducks.
Not that it matters. Both teams enter the Western Conference final on a roll. The Hawks have won five straight, sweeping the Minnesota Wild. And the Ducks are 8-1 in the playoffs, sweeping the Winnipeg Jets and knocking out the Calgary Flames in five.
“I think it’ll probably be neutralized with the momentum that they got,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “I would say we’re probably both at that same stage.”
So with no indefinable intangibles to worry about, may the best team win. Here are four X-factors that could decide who plays for the Stanley Cup, and who comes up just short.
Noteworthy: The Hawks are the best closers in the NHL. The Ducks are the comeback kings. As Pat Foley would say, something’s got to give. The Hawks are a perfect 30-0 when leading after two periods this season, including 5-0 in the postseason. The Ducks, meanwhile, tied an NHL record with 12 regular-season victories when trailing after two periods. In the playoffs, they’ve been even better. Four times, they’ve trailed going into the third period; they won all four games. In the regular season, they were a mind-blowing 33-1-7 in one-goal games.
It’s a fluky, likely unsustainable pace. But the fact is, if the Ducks are chasing a lead and they get aggressive on the forecheck and take risks offensively, they have so much size, speed and skill that they’re tough to stop. But what makes the Hawks so good with a lead is their patient team defense, and their opportunistic offense, which flips the ice in a hurry if the attacking team takes one chance too many. It’s the ultimate Immovable Object vs. Irresistible Force scenario.
Of course, 15 of 22 second-round games were decided by one goal, and a whopping 44 of 69 games were tied or within one goal in the final five minutes of regulation through the first two rounds. So maybe the score will be tied through two periods each game, and these stats will mean nothing.
Quoteworthy: “It’s pretty remarkable how many times they’ve come back this season, not just the playoffs,” Quenneville said. “[Our players] willbe reminded about that, for sure.”
Noteworthy: Both the Hawks and Ducks are 5-0 at home in these playoffs, and both Quenneville and Bruce Boudreau are savvy matchup artists behind the bench. Boudreau already has made it clear that, in the games in Anaheim, he’ll match up Ryan Kesler’s line against the Hawks’ top line of Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. That means it could fall on the Hawks’ fourth line of Andrew Desjardins, Marcus Kruger and Andrew Shaw to contain Anaheim’s massive (and massively productive) top line of Patrick Maroon, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who have combined for 13 goals through nine games.
But the Hawks have three legitimate scoring lines, the kind of depth that few teams in the league can match. So while the Ducks focus on shutting down the Toews line, Patrick Kane’s line and Patrick Sharp’s line should get more favorable matchups.
The chess match between Quenneville and Boudreau — Quenneville is more likely to match up Toews’ line with Getzlaf’s line when he has the last change in Chicago — will loom large all series.
Quoteworthy: “He’s one of those guys I think added to the Vancouver Canucks’ reputation that we didn’t like them too much and they didn’t like us,” Toews said of Kesler. “I’m sure he’s bringing a little bit of that edge to Anaheim. … He’ll be the type of guy that will be playing physical and trying to take some of our top players off their game, as well.”
Noteworthy: All season long, the Ducks were left scratching their heads, wondering how it was possible that a power-play unit with so much talent was so ineffective. Sound familiar, Hawks fans? Thing is, the Ducks have figured it out for the playoffs. So far, at least. After finishing the regular season with the third-worst power play in the league (15.7 percent), Anaheim has the top-ranked unit in the postseason, scoring on 31 percent of its chances (9-of-29).
The Hawks’ penalty-killing unit, meanwhile, which spent most of the season atop the league rankings before plummeting to 10th down the stretch, continued to struggle against Nashville and Minnesota, killing off a measly 72.7 percent of opposing power plays. If the Ducks power play stays hot, and the Hawks’ PK stays cold, Anaheim will win this series.
Quoteworthy: “The penalty kill’s been great all year,” Shaw said. “I think to win a Cup, you need to have a great penalty kill and a great power play.”
Noteworthy: On paper, the Ducks defense is a weakness. But Hampus Lindholm, Francois Beauchemin, Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen, and Simon Despres all have had strong, productive springs. That said, neither the Jets nor the Flames are the Blackhawks, and this will be the Anaheim blue line’s toughest test by far.
The question is, would you rather have six relatively untested defensemen, or four proven defensemen? Because Quenneville will be leaning on Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya in the wake of Michal Rozsival’s broken ankle. David Rundblad and Kimmo Timonen likely won’t play more than eight or 10 minutes a night, putting a heavy burden on the top four, against a heavy team, no less. Nine days off between series can only help, but the physical and fast Ducks will take their toll on a drastically shorthanded Hawks defensive corps.
Quoteworthy: “We have guys that are capable of playing a lot of minutes, and guys that are capable of stepping up and playing when they get asked to play,” Keith said.
Noteworthy: Frederik Anderson was a massive question mark entering the postseason — he wasn’t even the clear-cut No. 1, jockeying with John Gibson for the spot until the very end of the season. He’s answered all the questions, with a .925 save percentage and a 1.96 goals-against average in the playoffs. But he’s never been on a stage like this before.
Corey Crawford, on the other hand, has. He backstopped the Hawks to the Stanley Cup in 2013, and is coming off a tremendous series against the Wild after briefly losing his job against Nashville. He’ll also be eager to put the unpleasant memories of his pedestrian performance in last year’s conference final (.878 save percentage in seven games) behind him.
Quoteworthy: “The fire and that intensity I had before, I was kind of missing that edge for a couple games against Nashville,” Crawford said. “I had it for a little bit, but things opened up for me. I was able to get it back against Minnesota.”
Prediction: The Ducks aren’t the toughest team the Hawks have faced in recent years — the Kings each of the past two seasons, and the Bruins in 2013 were better, and were championship tested. But the challenge is real, and the Ducks are legit. In the end, the Hawks only need to win once at Honda Center, and they’ve already done it twice this season. Hawks in 6.