How the West will be won

The Ducks have the edge in advanced metrics, but the 'Hawks are more battle tested

Getty Images

The Chicago Blackhawks and the Anaheim Ducks both have superstars at the height of their powers who have led them to the Western Conference finals. Unfortunately, age will cause these stars to decline, and the salary cap will diminish their supporting ranks. There is no certainty in either team’s future, so for both, the time is now.

Through two playoff rounds, the Ducks have more impressive statistics. Anaheim leads the NHL playoffs in 5-on-5 Goals For/Against ratio. It took the Ducks only nine games to reach the conference finals. They had an even-strength Corsi for percentage of 53.2 against Winnipeg, and a 55.3 Corsi for percentage against Calgary, per war-on-ice.com. Moreover, in the Ducks’ five-game series win over the Flames, they had a plus-34 scoring-chance differential at 5-on-5.

Anaheim has received secondary scoring from Jakob Silfverberg, Matt Beleskey, Patrick Maroon, and its defensive group. Additionally, Anaheim’s power play is incandescent, converting at 31 percent, first among all teams. The Ducks trailed in the majority of their first-round games against Winnipeg, but their core delivered in crunch time. That matters.

Meanwhile, the Blackhawks controlled 53.3 percent of their even-strength shot attempts (Corsi) against Nashville, but only 49 percent of their even-strength shot attempts against the Minnesota Wild, per war-on-ice.com. Chicago has a slight edge in creating scoring chances for per 60 minutes, but the Ducks have allowed fewer scoring chances per 60 minutes. Chicago and Anaheim both have four players among the top 15 scoring leaders.

Watch Game 1: Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on NBC

Still, playoff success is also determined by matchups, and the Ducks’ superior statistics should be viewed in the context of the Blackhawks’ far tougher opponents. In Chicago, Anaheim takes on its toughest opponent yet, and it does not match up particularly well. The Blackhawks are nearly unbeatable at home, so it is essential that Anaheim grab Game 1 or 2 (or both) at home to avoid getting swept. There is the possibility that Anaheim will lose quickly and face a lot of accusations that it was a fraud. Here is a gameplan for how the Ducks can make this a tightly contested series.

 

Establish dominance on the forecheck

The Blackhawks are maestros at exiting their zone. Their puck support and direct passing off the wall and from the corners are the best in the NHL. But Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau will place heavy emphasis on slowing the game down and trying to punish the Blackhawks’ top-four defensemen, who will be logging exorbitant minutes due to Michal Rozsival’s injury.

MORE: Timonen ready for more minutes  |  ‘Hawks not worried about layoff

The Ducks were very effective on the rush against Calgary. Enabled by the Flames’ poor puck control and penchant for allowing very loose gaps, Anaheim consistently gained the zone and fired away. That will not be the case against Chicago. The Blackhawks are extremely aggressive at challenging entries, so the Ducks will want to operate below the goal line and work the cycle. Chicago is excellent at eliminating shooting and passing lanes in the middle of the ice and off-slot, especially when they are in their defensive posture. But a vulnerability of all that fronting and stick-checking is that sometimes opposing forwards can sneak by the defense and wiggle into a space in front of the net, like Zach Parise does here.

 

Slow the Blackhawks down

The Blackhawks flourish when they can carry the puck and gain speed through the neutral zone and whip stretch passes to their forwards. Opponents have had varying success with clogging the neutral zone and implementing layered defensive coverage to counteract the Blackhawks’ deadly transition game. For Anaheim to have a prayer of winning, it will need to force Chicago to dump the puck in. But Anaheim is not a team that plays with a rigid defensive structure, as this clip against Calgary reveals.

With 39.7 seconds remaining in the second period of Game 4 in a 2-2 game, Calgary had a chance to reset and attack. Despite the Flames starting from below their goal line, Anaheim’s defensive presence in the neutral zone was lacking.  When Flames center Sean Monahan achieves the zone entry, the Ducks’ coverage is plagued by inertia, as Monahan beats Ryan Kesler and Simon Despres and slithers his way into the middle of the ice. The Ducks need to stand up against the Blackhawks before they enter the zone. If they don’t, the Blackhawks’ high tempo and skill will roast them.

MORE: Kesler calls Blackhawks ‘beatable’  |  Ducks move on from Flames

 

Capitalize on the Blackhawks’ pronounced aggression

The Blackhawks play so aggressively that they inevitably allow odd-man-rush opportunities. Nashville and Minnesota did not convert on enough of them; the Ducks will need to do better. Such chances will come in different guises.

The Blackhawks’ defensemen join the rush and pinch up along the boards, but their forwards do not always fall back to cover, giving them four skaters in attacking position in the offensive zone. Such confidence can be exploited with a counterattack if Anaheim can manage Chicago’s blitzing below the circles.

In transition, the Blackhawks’ top-four rearguards consistenly activate from the weak side. But if the rush attempt gets bungled, Chicago has four skaters charging in the wrong direction. This clip is a perfect example of the Blackhawks’ brazen approach gone awry, but Wild forward Kyle Brodziak fails to register a goal.

However, this postseason, the Ducks have the highest shooting percentage in the NHL at 11.6. They will need more of that puck luck when they encounter this type of situation, to punish the Blackhawks for their aggressiveness.

Chicago’s defensemen love to challenge, and they will confront opposing skaters at the blue line or neutral zone in an effort to deny their entry. The blueliners have faith that the Blackhawks’ tracking will be there to cover the back side. If Jonathan Toews’ line is on the ice, there are usually one or two players driving up the middle. Because the Kane line is the least consistent trio in terms of back pressure, there are sequences when Chicago’s defensemen can be exploited as they chase down an opponent on the perimeter.

 

Keep the Ryan Getzlaf line away from the Toews line

The Ducks rely on Getzlaf’s line for major production but the Toews line and the Blackhawks’ top-four defensemen can overwhelm any opponent’s top line. The Toews line is remarkable at suffocating the opponent and driving play, and this postseason they have a combined plus-47 scoring-chance differential at even strength, per war-on-ice.com. Moreover, in their own barn, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville will get to control the matchups.

The Blackhawks probably won’t blanket the Getzlaf line because Getzlaf and Corey Perry are all-world talents. But if the impact of these two forwards is reduced, Anaheim will struggle mightily.

 

The Ducks’ puck management cannot be their downfall

Anaheim’s zone exits and puck advancement in the neutral zone have not been a hindrance yet, but the Blackhawks excel at pilfering possession from their opponents. The Ducks routinely cough up the puck in dangerous areas of their own zone, and even if they are able to chip the puck out, that is not the best outcome when playing Chicago. The Blackhawks’ regroup is swift and can strike quickly, and Anaheim needs to avoid the Blackhawks pouncing on their breakouts.

 

Prediction:

The Blackhawks’ defensive group will log big minutes, and Anaheim will punish Chicago’s skill players and attempt to turn each game into a grind. But the Blackhawks are very experienced in overcoming a physical opponent and utilizing their speed and puck skills to win the series. In the end, Anaheim’s turnovers and minimized efficiency from their top two lines will cause them to sputter.