Blackhawks

Five storylines to follow during Blackhawks-Ducks series

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Five storylines to follow during Blackhawks-Ducks series

After a lengthy layoff, we're officially one day away from the Blackhawks and Ducks hitting the ice for Game 1 in Anaheim. The two teams squared off three times in the 2014-15 regular season — the Blackhawks won two of them — but have never met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. So let's take a look at five storylines heading into the Western Conference Final.

1. Corey Crawford vs. Frederik Andersen

It's been an interesting year for both goaltenders. Coming off arguably the best regular season of his career, Corey Crawford temporarily lost his job in the first round after a rough start against Nashville. He's been lights out since, where he helped the Blackhawks sweep Minnesota by allowing just seven goals with a .947 save percentage in those four games. Meanwhile, Frederik Andersen finished the regular season unsure whether he was the starter, but his confidence and production in the postseason resembles one that knew it was his job all along. The Ducks netminder has helped guide his team to an 8-1 record this spring by posting a 1.96 goals against average and .925 save percentage.

But which goalies will show up in this series? Andersen, who's only in his second season, has never gotten this far, so it's unknown how he'll respond to the big-stage pressure. It's unlikely Crawford will have a meltdown like he did in Round 1, but it's also a stretch to assume he'll have the same success against the Ducks as he did vs. the Wild in Round 2. One thing's for sure, though: There is plenty of offensive fire power between these two teams, and both goaltenders will be tested early and often and be relied upon late.

[MORE: Blackhawks-Ducks: Who has edge in the Western Conference Final?]

2. Blackhawks' top line vs. Ducks' top line

Speaking of offensive fire power, one of the more anticipated storylines is the head-to-head battle between the Blackhawks' top line of Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa and Anaheim's featuring Patrick Maroon, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. We know both units are capable of packing the stat sheet on any given night, but the real storyline to watch is whether the Blackhawks' No. 1 line can contain the Ducks' dynamic trio.

The group of Maroon, Getzlaf and Perry is as hot a line as there is right now, combining for 34 points (13 goals, 21 assists) in nine playoff games; that's 34 percent of Anaheim's offense. For comparison, Saad, Toews and Hossa have accumulated 25.3 percent of the Blackhawks' offense. The Ducks rely heavily on their top unit to produce, and they're going up against a Blackhawks defensive pairing known for shutting down their opponents' top offensive players. Whichever team's first line has more success over the other throughout the course of the series will likely come out on top. If the two lines wash each other out with equal amount of success? That's where it gets intriguing.

3. How will the Blackhawks defend Ryan Kesler?

Anaheim essentially lived and died by its top line last season, but that's not the case this year. The offseason acquisition of Ryan Kesler has given the Ducks quality depth up the middle and has brought secondary scoring to a team that desperately needed it. But that's not all. Kesler will be looking to contribute offensively while being tasked with trying to prevent Patrick Kane, who's carrying a five-game scoring streak into Sunday, to do the same. 

The important question for the Blackhawks is which defensive pairing will Joel Quenneville assign to cover Kesler? Duncan Keith will surely spend the majority — if not every second — of his ice time defending Getzlaf and Perry, leaving Kesler's line open. The easy answer is the plug in Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya, but Quenneville toyed with the idea of Brent Seabrook and Oduya on the second pairing with Keith and Hjalmarsson on the first at practice on Friday. If that's the case, the Blackhawks certainly increase their chances at containing Anaheim's top two lines but do so at the risk overworking its top four defensemen too early in the game.

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4. Will the Blackhawks' lack of depth on the blue line be exposed?

The Blackhawks didn't have much breathing room on the back end of the blue line with Michal Rozsival as it was, and his absence thins out the depth even more. It's still unclear how Quenneville will play his cards, but Anaheim's lethal 1-2 punch might force him to ride his top four defensemen more than he'd like rather than balance out the ice time among the top six. Can a potential bottom pairing of Kimmo Timonen, who's averaging 9:25 minutes per game in the playoffs, and David Rundblad, who's never played in the postseason, be trusted? If so, for how long?

This is where home-ice advantage comes in handy for the Ducks. The home team has the benefit of having the last line change, making it difficult for the Blackhawks to play matchups in the opening two games of the series. Because of the Blackhawks' lack of defensive depth, they might have no other choice but to balance out all three pairings. 

5. Blackhawks' speed vs. Ducks' size

Perhaps the most talked about storyline is which style will prevail: the Blackhawks' speed or the Ducks' size? Both teams feel they could play any style if needed, but both are concentrated on playing their own and not adapting. 

The Blackhawks thrive off playing an up-tempo, quick transition game, and it's helped them win a pair of Stanley Cups in 2010 and 2013. But the Ducks will do everything they can to knock them off their game, both physically and mentally. Will it be enough?

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to Blue Jackets: Looking at the bigger picture

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to Blue Jackets: Looking at the bigger picture

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Saturday night:

1. Blackhawks squander two leads.

For the 13th time in their past 16 games, the Blackhawks scored the first goal of the game. They had won their previous three instances when doing so, but couldn't seal the deal this time and fell to 5-6-2 in those 13 games.

What strung even more is that the Blackhawks held two one-goal leads and couldn't hang on to either of them. They have the seventh-worst win percentage (.571) when scoring the first goal this season with a 20-10-5 record.

2. Vinnie Hinostroza continues to produce offensively.

If you're trying to look for a rare bright spot on the Blackhawks roster this season, here's one. Hinostroza registered a secondary assist on David Kampf's goal for his fifth point in six games, and was on the ice for 16 shot attempts for and seven against during 5-on-5 play for a team-leading shot attempt differential of plus-9 (also known as Corsi).

For the season, Hinostroza has 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) in 32 games and he's doing so while averaging only 13:27 of ice time. His point-per-game average is up to 0.63, which is tied with Jonathan Toews for third on the team; only Patrick Kane (0.92) and Nick Schmaltz (0.71) are producing at a higher rate.

Hinostroza deserves more minutes, but at the same time his ability to produce on any of the four lines has allowed Joel Quenneville to put him in a bottom six role for balance.

"I like his speed," Quenneville said recently on why Hinostroza has been so effective. "I think with the puck, he's been good with it as well. More strength, on it, managing it, better decisions with it, and good plays off it. He definitely brings you energy and some speed, he can catch people with that quickness."

3. Ryan Hartman's benching.

Hartman was part of the fourth line that contributed to the Blackhawks' first goal of the game, and he was on his way to having a strong one. But that changed quickly after he took an ill-advised penalty in the first period.

Already leading 1-0, the Blackhawks had a 2-on-1 opportunity developing involving Hinostroza and David Kampf but Hartman was whistled for high-sticking at 17:06 behind the play. The Blue Jackets converted on the power play, and that was the end of Hartman's night.

He took only five shifts and finished with a season-low 4:16 of ice time, with Quenneville using it as an opportunity for a teaching moment.

4. Tomas Jurco building confidence back up.

It's been a tough season mentally for Jurco. He started the season with the AHL's Rockford IceHogs after failing to make the team out of camp, and compiled 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists) in 36 games. 

It earned him a call-up on Jan. 8, with Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman praising the way he progressed: "He looks like he's totally different, in terms of his composure and ability to make plays. That's why we brought him up here."

The problem? He was a healthy scratch for five straight games and went two weeks without seeing game action with the Blackhawks. Not exactly the best way to keep someone's confidence building. And since then, he's been fighting for a spot in the lineup.

For the last three games, Jurco has been given a shot on the second line with Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane and he cashed in for his first goal of the season tonight and first since March 27, 2017. It's also the second straight game he's recorded a point.

While he may not be worth much if the Blackhawks were to deal him ahead of Monday's deadline, perhaps a change of scenery to a team that believes in him as a fit will bring out the best of his abilities. The Blackhawks tried and it just hasn't worked out.

5. Blue line observation.

This is more of a big-picture takeaway, but the Blackhawks have gotten only 20 goals from their defensemen this season. The Blue Jackets have gotten a combined 19 from just Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Last season the Blackhawks had 30 total.

The Blackhawks just haven't gotten the offensive production needed from their back end and it's so important as it helps alleviate some of the pressure off the forwards.

I asked Quenneville about this after Friday's game and here's what he had to say: "Whether you score or not, you need the D to be part of your attack, be it off the rush, in zone. But I think the whole game, the whole league is four-man rush game, five-man attacks, coming at you, night-in, night-out, wave after wave.

"But you need to get your D involved in your support on the attack and you need them on the offensive zone off the point. You need some shooters on the back end that can get them through as well. I think offensive production from the back end in today’s game really enhances your offense and your possession game."

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. One big reunion.

The Blackhawks will square off with the Blue Jackets for the first time since Oct. 7, which was the second game of the season. In that game, they won 5-1 led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, each of whom scored a goal and added an assist.

Of course, that was the first game since the offseason trade that sent Artemi Panarin to Columbus and Saad back to Chicago, along with Anton Forsberg. Artem Anisimov, of course, was part of the original deal that sent Saad to Columbus in 2015, so there are a lot of emotional ties between the two teams.

Forsberg didn't get a chance to face the Blue Jackets in the first meeting, but there's a chance he will this time with it being the second of a back-to-back and Jean-Francois Berube getting the start in Friday's 3-1 win over San Jose.

2. Panarin and Kane bromance.

The emotions of a difficult break-up have probably died down by now, but Panarin and Kane gave us this moment at center ice during pregame warmups in their first game against each other and it hit Chicago right in the feels:

Panarin has spent enough time apart from Kane for people to realize how big of a star he is in his own right, leading the Blue Jackets in all three scoring categories: goals (17), assists (32) and points (49).

He hasn't gone more than three games this season without recording a point, and is looking to extend his point streak to four games, which would tie a season high.

3. Struggling Blue Jackets special teams.

The Blue Jackets got off to a great start but are barely clinging onto a wild card spot going into Saturday's game, and a big reason for that slide is their lack of success on special teams. Usually one can pick up the slack for the other, but they've been brutal in both departments.

The Blue Jackets are 0-for-9 on the power play in their past five games and are ranked 31st overall, converting on only 14.1 percent of their opportunities. They also have own the 27th-ranked penalty kill with a 76.3 percent success rate.

So if there's an area the Blackhawks can exploit, it's that. But, you know, still be mindful of that Russian winger's one-timer from the faceoff circle.