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

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

You’re tired of waiting, we know. So are we. It’s been another long layoff between rounds for the Blackhawks, who will finally – finally – begin the Western Conference Final against the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday afternoon.

This series promises to be a tough one – OK we said the same thing heading into the Wild-Blackhawks series but go with us again. The Ducks are strong and physical; the Blackhawks are fast and experienced. Both teams have their stars, their goal scorers. Both made quick work of their second-round foes.

So, who has the edge? We thought you’d never ask.

FORWARDS

The Ducks got a lot stronger up the middle this offseason when they acquired Ryan Kesler (the Blackhawks were in the mix, too). He’s been a point-a-game guy this postseason, and that includes four goals. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are big scoring threats on the Ducks’ top line; Perry has 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) while Getzlaf has 12 (two goals, 10 assists). Matt Beleskey, who had a quiet first round, had five goals in as many games against the Calgary Flames.

[MORE HAWKS: Blackhawks ramp up practice ahead of Western Conference Final]

All questions about Patrick Kane’s rust/recovery off that fractured clavicle were answered emphatically in the second round. Kane had five goals against the Wild, almost as many as the Wild itself (seven goals, two of which came in the final 2 1/2 minutes of Game 4). Jonathan Toews has also been steady with 11 points (four goals, seven assists). Patrick Sharp has nine points. Marian Hossa may have just one goal thus far but he’s always a threat to do more and has seven assists. Both teams have their firepower. The Blackhawks, with guys like Sharp and Teuvo Teravainen on a third line, have more depth. EDGE: Blackhawks

DEFENSEMEN

Anaheim is solid in this department with Francois Beauchemin, Hampus Lindhom and Cam Fowler leading the way. The Ducks defensemen have added offense in the postseason, to (Beauchemin and Lindholm each have six points and Sami Vatanen has seven, including two goals).

The Blackhawks suffered a big loss when Michal Rozsival broke his left ankle in Game 4 against the Wild. Coach Joel Quenneville tinkered with defensive pairs on Thursday, pairing Duncan Keith (who is a plus-10 with 10 points, including two goals) with Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook with Johnny Oduya and Kimmo Timonen with David Rundblad. Quenneville said he just wanted to see his options but let’s state the obvious: the top four are going to get the brunt of the action. Normally you’d be concerned with the extra minutes but after nine days off, they should be ready for more. EDGE: Blackhawks

[MORE HAWKS: Full schedule of Blackhawks-Ducks Western Conference Final]

GOALTENDING

Frederik Andersen was strong for the Ducks, recording victories in eight of his nine starts with a 1.96 goals-against average and.925 save percentage. Corey Crawford got past his first-round yips and was much better in the second round, during which he stopped 124 of 131 shots. In deciding this one we ask the same question that we did entering the second round: which Crawford shows up this time? If it’s the regular season/second round Crawford, this will be quite the duel. EDGE: Ducks

POWER PLAY

The Ducks and Blackhawks are similar here for one reason: despite all their talent, their power plays were underachieving during the regular season. In the postseason, things have changed. The Blackhawks did pretty well despite limited chances in the second round (two goals on six power-play opportunities). That comes after three power-play goals on a myriad of chances (19) against Nashville. The Ducks’ power play, however, has really clicked in the playoffs, recording an NHL-playoff best nine goals on 29 opportunities (31 percent). EDGE: Ducks

PENALTY KILL

The Blackhawks got better in this category in the second round; after allowing six power-play goals to the Predators they gave up three to the Wild, and one was a 6-on-4 goal in the waning minutes of Game 4. The Ducks’ penalty kill has been stingy throughout the postseason, allowing just four power-play goals. As much as the Blackhawks’ kill has improved, it’s going to have its hands full with the Ducks’ power play. EDGE: Ducks

[NBC SHOP: Get the latest Blackhawks gear here]

RUST FACTOR

This normally wouldn’t be a topic but since it’s been quite a while since both teams played, we’ll discuss. The Ducks last played last Sunday; the Blackhawks haven’t played since May 7. Oh, and both teams dealt with this after their first rounds, too: Anaheim had a week between first and second rounds and the Blackhawks had six days. How did it affect each team? The Ducks beat the Flames in five and the Blackhawks beat the Wild in four, so not much. Expect both teams to be clicking after this layoff, too. EDGE: Even

EXPERIENCE

Perry, Getzlaf and Beauchemin were all part of the Ducks’ 2007 Stanley Cup team, so they know what it takes to get to this point. Kesler has been to a Cup final with the Canucks. The Ducks do have a good amount of youth on their team, however. How will they deal with the pressure that grows with each passing postseason? The Ducks will soon find out. The Blackhawks have two Cups since 2010 and have been to the Western Conference Finals three consecutive seasons. Having experience doesn’t mean a team wins, but it doesn’t hurt at this time of year. EDGE: Blackhawks

Four takeaways: 'Vintage' Corey Crawford steals two points for Blackhawks

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AP

Four takeaways: 'Vintage' Corey Crawford steals two points for Blackhawks

COLUMBUS — Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Saturday:

1. Corey Crawford steals the show

The Blackhawks had no business winning this game. They were being outshot 28-15 through two periods, committed four penalties and gave up 18 high-danger chances in the game. 

But Crawford bailed out his team like he often has done in the past, and was zoned in from the moment the puck dropped. He finished with 37 saves on 38 shots for a save percentage of .974, picking up his first win since Dec. 17, 2017.

"Yeah, I felt good," Crawford said. "I think everyone was playing hard, rebounds, taking away sticks. That was a great effort by everyone."

"He was standing on his head for us," Patrick Kane said. "As Q would say, that’s a goalie win for us."

Said coach Joel Quenneville: "That was vintage Crow."

2. Tic-tac-toe leads to go-ahead goal

The Blue Jackets were clearly the better team through two periods. The Blackhawks were fortunate to go into second intermission with the game still tied at 1-1.

The next goal was crucial, and they got it thanks to a Marcus Kruger redirection goal. The next one was the dagger, a beautiful give-and-go play by Brent Seabrook and Kane, who buried home a wide open net to give the Blackhawks a 3-1 lead with 4:14 left in regulation.

Was Kane expecting Seabrook to pass it back?

"No. Not a chance," Kane said laughing. "That’s his wheelhouse, coming right down there. He scores a lot of goals from that area. Saw it was like a 2-on-2, he was coming late, he jumped in the play on the first goal, did a great job, jumped in the play on that goal. Made a great pass. When I saw it come back, I just tried to stay patient, settle it down and make sure I hit the net, because I knew I had the whole open net."

3. Busy night for PK

The Blackhawks penalty kill was very busy. It was also on it's A-game, partly because their best penalty killer was Crawford.

The Blackhawks spent 6:31 of the first 40 minutes killing penalties, allowing 11 shots total on it. But most importantly, they killed off all four penalties.

"We had some tough clears, but I thought we did some good things," Quenneville said. "We withstood some extended PK zone time there and found a way to keep us in the game. Obviously that next goal was huge and that second period was a big part of them having so much zone time, keeping us in our end. We'll say, hey good job, but Crow was the best penalty killer tonight."

4. Catching up with Kane on Artemi Panarin

Kane and Panarin spent only two seasons together, but they brought Blackhawks fans out of their seats on a nightly basis and it was amazing to watch the instant on-ice chemistry they shared. And most of it was non-verbal, which made it even more impressive. They were always on the same wavelength.

"Sometimes it takes time to build some chemistry but that was one of those things where it was like, I don't want to say instant chemistry, but after one or two preseason games we kind of new that maybe something special was going to happen," Kane told NBC Sports Chicago. "I think he scored in his first game in the NHL, we had a really good game, we had the puck a lot, we sensed that this could be a fun way to play hockey."

Off the ice, Kane said Panarin would use Google translate on his phone to communicate while Kane would try using a Russian accent while saying English words.

The two of them got a chance to hang out for a little bit on Friday and Kane still keeps tabs on his former linemate.

"I always really enjoy watching him," Kane said. "If we have an off night or something, he's a really fun player to watch."

Blackhawks and Blue Jackets both going through own challenges of Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad trade

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks and Blue Jackets both going through own challenges of Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad trade

COLUMBUS — The Blackhawks and Blue Jackets blockbuster trade from the 2017 offseason is always a hot topic in Chicago when things aren't going great. It especially is when the two teams square off against each other, like Saturday at Nationwide Arena for the first time this season.

If it wasn't already apparent in Chicago, Artemi Panarin has emerged as a real NHL superstar and is set for a giant payday when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2019. He set a Blue Jackets record with 82 points in a single season and has nine points (three goals, six assists) through six games this season.

Brandon Saad, on the other hand, had a challenging first year back with the Blackhawks in 2017-18 after netting only 35 points in 82 games and is off to a slow start this year as well with zero goals and two assists through six games. After a demotion to the fourth line, he was close to being a healthy scratch on Thursday, which only magnifies where things are at as the two get ready to clash.

But Saad was never going to be able to replace Panarin's offensive production. Everybody knows that. Yet, the offensive comparisons will always be there as a barometer and that's something Saad doesn't think about, no matter how much fans talk about it.

"I don't think I do it," he said. "We're different players. He's a great player. Fans are going to do whatever comparisons they want, but at the end of the day you've got to be true to yourself and do what you bring to the table. He's a great player around the league. You can see his highlights and his goals, he's definitely a special player. But at the end of the day I've got confidence in my abilities too. We both bring different attributes, but they're going to make comparisons regardless."

A big reason why the Blackhawks reacquired Saad, other than his ability to play a 200-foot game, is because he carries a $6 million cap hit through 2020-21, which is two years more than Panarin at the same cap hit. (It's also important to note that the Blackhawks hoped they were getting a reliable, young backup goaltender in Anton Forsberg, but the injury to Corey Crawford thrust him into a role he wasn't exactly prepared for.)

It's not all rainbows for Columbus right now regarding where things stand with Panarin, who has made it clear he's not ready to sign a long-term extension. All signs point to the 26-year-old winger hitting the market, putting the Blue Jackets in a tricky situation ahead of the trade deadline. The Blackhawks very well could have found themselves in this position, too, had a deal not been made.

Both sides are dealing with their own challenges of the trade. Saad is still a key piece to the Blackhawks' puzzle and they're hoping to get more out of him, for no other reason than the team's overall success.

"You want to have success regardless of who you're playing for, who you're traded for, things like that," Saad said. "Naturally, just as competitors, you want to bring that excitement and you want to have success with the team and personally."