Seventh heaven

The epic Western Conference Finals between the Blackhawks and Ducks fittingly goes the distance

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The Western Conference final has been an anthology instead of a novella. Familiar lessons have been woven throughout each game/story (comfort in one’s identity, perseverance, accountability, success as a product of hard work), but each game has felt strikingly distinct from the others. Nevertheless, here are three key factors that have emerged from this series and will have an important bearing on the outcome of Game 7.

The high-end talent is so good that depth is a deciding factor

Both coaches have been aggressive in their efforts to dictate their preferred matchups. Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau wants Ryan Kesler pitted against Jonathan Toews, and Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has deployed his fourth line against both the Ryan Getzlaf and Kesler lines. The offensive impact of each team’s superstar forwards has ebbed and flowed, but their scoring influence never wanes. Even after a stint of quiet play, the top-tier attackers can flash their scoring prowess. There is little doubt that the thoroughbreds will show up for the final contest.

WATCH GAME 7: Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on NBC; Stream it on Live Extra

But where things get very interesting is the secondary scoring. Chicago’s have been conspicuous while Anaheim’s returns have been diminishing. Patrick Sharp has controlled 60.87 percent of even-strength shot attempts (Corsi) over the last two games, and Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger command 58.33 percent of shot attempts in their favor, per war-on-ice.com. Shaw also registered the clinching goal in Game 6, an excellent effort in a one-on-one against the redoubtable Ducks captain Getzlaf. Not to be outdone, Kruger scored the game winner in the triple-overtime battle in Game 2. Sharp’s linemate Teuvo Teravainen has 29 shot attempts at 5 on 5 over his last two games, and his one goal and one assist in that span were essential in stimulating the Blackhawks’ memorable comeback in Game 5. Even Antoine Vermette has submitted the third-best scoring chances differential among Chicago forwards in this series.

The Ducks’ ancillary contributions have been unevenly weighted. Their defense has added scoring in this series (Cam Fowler and Sami Vatanen both have a goal and three assists, Hampus Lindholm has a goal and two assists, Francois Beauchemin has two assists and Clayton Stoner has a goal) but the advantage Anaheim seemed to enjoy with its third and fourth line has been absent over the last three games. Nate Thompson, Kyle Palmieri, and Andrew Cogliano have a combined -17 scoring chances differential, per war-on-ice.com. Thompson and Cogliano have two assists and Palmieri has one. If each team’s top players are canceling each other out, it is going to come down to the supporting casts making a difference.

The Blackhawks’ workhorses on defense need to survive

The workload that Chicago’s top-four defensemen are assuming is astounding. Johnny Oduya is fourth in time on ice among the group, and he is logging one less second per game than Francois Beauchemin, the Ducks’ top minute-logger. Duncan Keith has played 509:13 so far in the 2014-15 playoffs, which is just under 67 minutes more than Victor Hedman, who ranks second. (If Hedman plays all of Game 7 on Friday, he still will not catch Keith!) Yet it is truly amazing what these four defensemen have been able to accomplish.

Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Oduya all rank in the top five among all conference finals players in shot attempts for at even strength, per war-on-ice.com. Keith, Seabrook, and Hjalmarsson rank in the top four in scoring chances for at 5 on 5, and Oduya is ninth.

The truth is that the Blackhawks’ defensemen are the engine of the team. They enable the transition game with their ability to consistently utilize the stretch pass. They allow Chicago to exit the zone cleanly with their mobility and crisp first pass. Early in the series, the Ducks’ physicality appeared to have the Blackhawks’ defensemen playing less assertively. Chicago is at their best when their defensemen are able to join the rush and activate in the offensive zone. Their mobility frees up the forwards to find space and there is lots of motion in the neutral zone and rotation in the offensive zone.

But as Ryan Kesler so aptly put it, “No human can withstand that many hits.” The scary part is that the Blackhawks are so thin on defense they cannot spare one defenseman’s play nosediving due to fatigue. Anaheim will certainly be testing the limits by punishing them on the forecheck and trying to get behind them on the counterattack. The Ducks’ M.O. is to grind the forecheck and slow the game down. They have gotten away from this in recent games, but look for a return to that formula in the final chapter.

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No lead is safe

Multi-goal leads in this series are ephemeral. In Game 2, the Blackhawks blew a 2-0 lead and won in triple overtime. In Game 4, Chicago had a 3-1 lead and Anaheim scored three goal in 37 seconds, giving them the goal advantage, before conceding a goal and losing in overtime. In Game 5, the Ducks had a 3-0 lead and then a 4-2 edge with less than two minutes remaining, which they forfeited before winning the game in overtime. Finally, Chicago jumped out to 3-0 in Game 6 before Anaheim made the game 3-2, which the Blackhawks barely survived.

When trailing by 2-plus, the shot attempts and scoring chances for increase when each team is losing, but not by a significant margin, per war-on-ice.com. What is noteworthy, though, is that the shooting percentage for the trailing team skyrockets. When the Ducks are trailing by 2-plus, their shooting percentage is 25 percent. The Ducks’ shooting percentage is 8.4 in all scoring and manpower situations, which is last among all conference finalists. But when that is adjusted to situations where the Ducks are losing, their shooting percentage jumps to 11.7, the best in the playoffs. The Blackhawks’ shooting percentage is 9.9 when they are trailing, but when they are trailing by 2-plus it inflates to 13.0.

What this tells us is that all of these blown leads have more to do with goaltending faltering than the winning team’s players relaxing. Some of the goals conceded have come from good scoring areas, but the sharp dip in save percentage suggests that the men in net share a portion of the blame.

Game 7 assessment:

Home-ice advantage matters for both of these teams, and it has shown up in different ways in this series. The home team has won the faceoff battle every single game, and the fits experienced by the high-end forwards have been precipitated by the home coach getting last change. Anaheim would appear to have the edge since they are playing Game 7 in their barn. But while there is little doubt Getzlaf and Perry will bring their A game, the rest of their supporting cast is shrouded with uncertainty. The Ducks’ defensive group has played about as well as possible so far, but Chicago has four forward lines that have shown they are capable of making a positive impact while their top-four defensemen will play as much as necessary to get the W. Winning a Game 7 on the road is tough, but the Blackhawks have shown time and time again that you cannot count them out.