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Hawks need to find a way to take ‘excitement’ out of Frederik Andersen’s game

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Hockey is the most mental of sports, to an astonishing degree. You’re a threat when you’re good. But you’re never more dangerous than when you think you’re good. And that could be trouble for the Blackhawks against Frederik Andersen and the Anaheim Ducks.

Two years ago, a slumping, over-thinking Patrick Kane knocked a puck across the goal line that already was going into the net for a tying goal in Game 4 against the Los Angeles Kings in the conference final. In any other sport it would have been a classic case of poaching, stealing a score from teammate Bryan Bickell.

But in hockey, Kane’s teammates couldn’t have been more thrilled for him. It broke a seven-game goal-less streak and they knew that any ol’ kind of a goal could ignite the dormant Kane. It seemed like a silly notion — that a cheapie like that could make that much of a difference to player with Kane’s world-class talent — until Kane scored three goals the next game and six goals in the next seven games overall to lead the Hawks across the finish line of a Stanley Cup championship. A forward with two goals in the first 15 games of a Stanley Cup playoff ended up winning the Conn Smythe Trophy.

That’s the impact of confidence in the most mercurial of sports. It can’t be overestimated as a factor in any series, which is why the Hawks might have a Frederik Andersen problem in the Western Conference final. On paper, Andersen is not as much of a threat to dominate a series as Nashville’s Pekka Rinne or Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk — both Vezina Trophy finalists. But true to the nature of hockey, when Andersen is on, he’s on and as good as anybody. He came into Game 1 as a question mark and came out of it as a hashtag.

Andersen stopped 32 of 33 shots in the Ducks’ 4-1 victory in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final on Sunday at the Honda Center. But one key, first-period stop by the Great Dane against the Great Kane made the difference. When Kane had a one-on-one  opportunity from a tough-but-manageable angle— just Kane vs. a vulnerable Andersen with nobody in between — Andersen deflected the shot over the net with his stick. It’s a play Kane has scored on seemingly every time in this year’s playoffs. That Andersen made the play apparently was so surprising, he wasn’t even given credit for a save on it. It went down as a Kane miss on the official play-by-play (“Wrist, Over net, Off. Zone, 14 ft.”)

Even Andersen called it a fortunate play (“Luckily he hit the stick,” he said.). But Hawks coach Joel Quenneville noted the confidence that play gave Andersen, that it “got some excitement to his game.” That’s classic hockey terminology that explains why one shot attempt out of 126 in a game can make THE difference. How big of a difference? Veteran reporters who are immersed in the sport were saying that if Kane scores on that play, it could have been 4-1 Hawks instead of 4-1 Ducks. One play.

Unlike Kane against the Kings in 2013, Andersen wasn’t in a funk coming in — he was 8-1 with a 1.96 goals-against average and .925 save percentage. Now he’s 9-1 with a 1.86 goals-against average and .930 save percentage — and as confident as ever.

“I think everyone in the locker room knows we can beat this team,” Andersen said after the game. “It’s a good feeling that we showed it in Game 1.”

Will Andersen be the Hawks’ undoing? We’ll see. In their seven playoff seasons under Quenneville the Hawks arguably have been beaten by the goaltender only once — the Phoenix Coyotes’ Mike Smith in the first round in 2012. And no matter how much excitement you have to your game, all situations are fluid — in this sport you have momentum until you don’t; you’re hot until you’re not.

The Hawks plan on making it tougher for Andersen the next time. “Net presence” is their default option in situations like this and usually works. But in this sport, you never know.

“I still think we’re more successful when he has a hard time trying to see through screens and second layers,” Quenneville said. “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 [in] and go from there.”