The Anaheim Ducks have the Blackhawks right where they want them — once and for all.
“They’re elite players over there. They make plays. They take hits,” Ducks center Ryan Kesler said. “Saying that, we invested in them the whole series physically for Game 7. Every hit that we’ve had … it’s all for Game 7. That’s why we invested physically. And it’s all going to add up for Game 7.”
We’ll see about that. The Ducks have been harping on the cumulative effect of their physical approach against the Hawks throughout the Western Conference final. And all they have to show for it so far is putting 40-year-old Kimmo Timonen on the bench. And with all due respect to the veteran Timonen, he was not very effective before he ever took a hit in this series.
“I think we’re good,” Hawks forward Patrick Sharp said Thursday. “We’re healthy. We have a defense core that want to be on the ice — they’re fighting to jump over the boards. [They] want to play heavy minutes.
“Up front I think we’re feeling pretty good. Whether it’s a physical game or a wide-open game, we like that style of play. We’ll be ready for whatever they throw at us.”
That’s the way it’s always been with the Blackhawks in the Patrick Kane-Jonathan Toews era, and most teams know better. But the season-ending injury to defenseman Michal Rozsival in Game 4 against the Wild that basically left the Hawks with four playoff-quality defensemen seems to have goaded the Ducks into a strategy and a mentality that could backfire on them.
The Hawks’ four key defensemen have held up despite playing excessive minutes — Duncan Keith (33:50 per game), Brent Seabrook (30:22), Niklas Hjalmarsson (29:43) and Johnny Oduya (27:08). Keith, in fact, seems to be getting only stronger as the physical toll accumulates.
The Ducks still think their strategy of pounding the Hawks into submission will work. “Well, we’re hoping,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. And it might still. But already fate seems to be wreaking havoc with their best-laid plans for Game 7. With two days between games for the first time in this series, the Hawks will have an ever-valuable extra day to rest up.
And the way this series has ensued, it could make a difference. The Hawks have been most vulnerable in the postseason when they are the least rested. Of their five losses in the playoffs, four have come after they had played a multiple-overtime game. The other loss — in the conference final opener against the Ducks — came after a nine-day layoff.
But when the Hawks have been on “regular rest” — three days or fewer after a game that went regulation (or a 45-second overtime), the Hawks are 10-0. That doesn’t mean the Hawks will win Game 7. But it’s a pretty good indication they’ll be fresher Saturday night than they were in Game 5, when the Hawks, coming off a double-overtime game, fell behind 3-0 in the first period and didn’t even get a shot on goal on the first 16:30 of the game.
Even without Timonen, the Hawks still have six players 31 and older who played in Game 6 — Marian Hossa (36), Richards (35), Patrick Sharp (33), Johnny Oduya (33), Antoine Vermette (32) and Duncan Keith (31). The Ducks have one — defenseman Francois Beauchemin (34).
Game 7s usually are a battle of wills, a mental challenge as well as a physical one. The Hawks have to feel good about their chances there. They’re even tougher mentally than they are physically. The Ducks might have as much to prove in Game 7 as the Hawks.
“I credit the guys — their focus, their preparation, their will to win, finding ways to win,” Quenneville said. “They love the journey. They’re competitive beyond what you could want it to be.”