Traffic in front of net a key to victory, but Blackhawks will have to fight for it

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Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews battles the Bruins’ 6-9, 256-pound Zdeno Chara for position in front of the net in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2013. Net-front presence ultimately made the difference as the Hawks won the game 3-2 to clinch their second Cup championship in four years. (Elise Amendola/AP)

ANAHEIM, Calif. —The Blackhawks’ problem in Game 1 of the Western Conference final was a familiar one —the goalie was better than they were. And the solution is as old as hockey itself.

“I think we have to work for [goals],” captain Jonathan Toews said prior to Game 2 against the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday night. “We’re going to have to play harder around the net and I think as everyone says, it’s always about traffic. It’s about making things difficult for a goaltender to see.”

As Toews noted, the Hawks have faced hot goaltenders many times in the playoffs and figured a way to get the job done. In the 2013 Western Conference final, the Kings’ Jonathan Quick came in off a big series against the Sharks —a 1.43 goals-against average and .951 save percentage. By the second period of Game 2 against the Hawks, Quick was on the bench after allowing four goals on 17 shots. The Hawks won the series in five games.

They did the same to the Bruins’ Tuukka Rask in the final (16 goals in six games) that year. And they just beat two of the three Vezina Trophy finalists (the Predators’ Pekka Rinne and the Wild’s Devan Dubnyk) to reach this year’s conference final.

The Ducks’ Frederik Andersen established himself as a force to be reckoned with in Game 1. He stopped 32-of-33 shots, including a huge stop on Patrick Kane in the first period that Kane usually scores on.

“When you’re playing a bigger goalie, sometimes it’s not the easiest thing to take away his eyes,” Kane said. “He seems to see everything that comes his way.”

After struggling to beat Andersen in Game 1, the Hawks’ went to their default solution as they prepared for Game 2 on Tuesday night at the Honda Center: net-front presence.

“He got some excitement to his game,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said “But I still think we’re more successful when he has a hard time trying to see through screens and second layers.

“They blocked a lot of shots as well [22]. We didn’t get some shots through. I think quicker shot selections, more bodies at the net is your best opportunity to get one and go from there.”

That will be a challenge against a physical Ducks defensive corps that limited the Hawks’ opportunities to get in front of Andersen and cleared the “garbage” on rebounds.

“We’ve worked a lot as a group on trying to let Freddy see the puck and get those second and third opportunities out of the front of the net,” Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler said. “We have guys who are great at boxing people out —[Clayton Stoner and Francois Beauchemin]. If Freddy sees it, he’s going to make that first save and it’s up to us to clear the garbage after that.”

Net-front presence is a constant battle for a team like the Hawks, who are built more on speed and skill than players with a hulking, physical presence in front of the net. With Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw and Jonathan Toews, they’re more than adept at doing it. But they have to work at it harder than a teams like the Kings or Blues.

“You could look at L.A. the last couple of years. That’s where their bread-and-butter was,” Fowler said. “They built their team around people who were strong, physical, who could get to the front of the net. That’s a great recipe for success in playoff hockey.

“St. Louis comes to mind, too. But different teams are built different ways. I wouldn’t say Chicago’s built the same way as L.A. — but they still have people who can make you pay and make you hurt and make it count when the you get to the front of the net.”

Still, for the Hawks, establishing a net-front presence comes and goes. It’s one of several things in hockey that is easier said than done. It’s a combination of finesse and strength, but mostly a battle of wills.

“Yeah, it is. It’s a little bit of an art-form,” Fowler said. “As a forward, you have to be willing to get in front, take a few shots from the D-men, cross-checks, because you’re going to get pounded if you go to the front of the net. But as a D-man, you have to know the time when it’s time to lock up with the guy and just battle him one-on-one physically.

“But you also need to know when it might be time to maybe just not be engaged with him physically but be ready for a rebound that comes and be the first to play on that. That’s more of what I focus on, because I’m not exactly the most physical defenseman who’s going to punish a guy when they come there. But I can use some different attributes I have to try and be the first guy on the puck and clear those rebounds away.

“There’s really a lot of things that go into it, but it’s a big, big part of playoff hockey.”

And Fowler and the Ducks were bracing for a more concerted effort by the Hawks in Game 2.

“They’re going to be coming with a little more oomph to get to the front of the net,” Fowler said, “and we have to make sure that we’re ready for that challenge.”

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