Once upon a time, the Anaheim Ducks’ third line was a problem the Blackhawks had to deal with.
And then it wasn’t.
In the first two games of the Western Conference final, the Ducks’ third line of Andrew Cogliano, Kyle Palmieri and Nate Thompson combined for three goals, three assists and a combined plus-9.
By the end of the series, Cogliano, Palmieri and Thompson were a footnote. In Games 6 and 7 — both won by the Hawks — the Ducks’ third line produced one point and was a combined minus-3.
The Hawks aren’t immune to issues in the playoffs —they never did solve the Kings’ third line in last year’s Western Conference final. But their ability to respond to most of those challenges could be an advantage against an opponent they aren’t that familiar with in the Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Issues are almost sure to crop up. The Lightning play fast. They have a clutch goaltender in 6-7 Ben Bishop. And a red-hot line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. A Toews-esque captain in Steven Stamkos. And and one of the top young defensemen in hockey in Victor Hedman.
But only in real-time will the Hawks know just how fast the Lightning are, how clutch Bishop is, how red-hot the “triplets” are, and what kind of problem Stamkos and Hedman will be.
“The biggest challenge against this team is we’re not familiar like we were the teams we’ve played,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “They’ve got a fast team. They’ve got a top line you have to be concerned with; top players you have to be worried about. Their overall team speed is the one thing and their attack game is dangerous.
The Hawks will deal with it the way they deal with every problem in the playoffs — by playing hockey. Frederik Andersen was a problem too, in the conference final, until he wasn’t.
“We’re focused on how we need to play and what we need to do as individuals to help the team win,” Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. “We focus on what we need to do out there, that’s no matter who we’re playing against, the main objective.
“We have respect for the other team and we haven’t played them as much. At the same time, it’ll come down to what we do and how we play that dictates what happens.”
The Cup final presents an unknown factor more than any other playoff series. The Hawks played the Lightning twice in the regular season. Corey Crawford hasn’t faced the Lightning since Nov. 11, when the Hawks won 3-2 in a shootout at the United Center.
The Hawks aren’t too concerned about that.
“You could say the same thing for them,” captain Jonathan Toews said when asked if the unfamiliarity with the Lightning concerned him. “We’ve been in this position before [vs. the Flyers in 2010 and the Bruins in 2013]. I think you just come in and worry about your preparation and what’s going to make you the best team you could possibly be in this series and try and make them worry about you.
“That’s what we did the last two times and hopefully we can use that experience this time around.”
It’s hard to argue with Toews’ logic. In 2010, Flyers’ defenseman Chris Pronger was in the Hawks’ heads in a 2-2 series until the Hawks turned Pronger inside out in Game 5 — a minus-5 in a 7-4 Hawks victory. In 2013, Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara was giving the Hawks fits as the Bruins took a 2-1 series lead. Chara was a minus-6 for the final three games, all won by the Hawks.
“You adapt to each game, however it’s being played,” Patrick Sharp said. “That’s the good thing about our team. We can adjust to a physical style, a skating style, but we like to play the way that Joel and the coaching staff has kind of implemented their system. So as long as we stick to our game plan, we’re happy.”