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Blackhawks face tough test against Ducks in Western Conference Final

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Blackhawks face tough test against Ducks in Western Conference Final

The St. Louis Blues, the Minnesota Wild, even the Los Angeles Kings: these are teams the Blackhawks are used to seeing over and over again, regular season and postseason.

The Anaheim Ducks, well, the Blackhawks don’t see them quite as often. Still, in this day and age, there’s no such thing as an unknown opponent. Even if you play once or twice a season – or in the case of these two, three times – you see enough of your opponents’ other games, you watch enough film to be ready.

And when it comes to the Ducks, the Blackhawks had better be good and ready.

No, we still don’t know when the Ducks and Blackhawks will commence the Western Conference Finals. We could take guesses until we’re all confused but what the hell is the point of that? So let’s forget about what we don’t know (at the moment) and look at what we do know: the Ducks are going to be one formidable opponent.

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“You watch them play, they’ve got a lot of different options they use,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Their [defensemen] are very mobile. They’re strong in all aspects. Faceoff circle, they’re good in that area, as well. So we need to be at our best in all areas ourselves.”

The Blackhawks were playing at their best, or pretty close to it, when they wrapped up their series vs. the Wild. The goaltending, defensive and penalty killing issues that had been there in the first round dissipated. Corey Crawford was back to his strong form. The Blackhawks held the Wild to seven goals over those four games, and two of those came in the final two and a half minutes of Game 4. The penalty kill came up in critical situations.

Now they bring that more complete game against the Ducks, who are playing pretty well themselves. The Ducks have lost just one of their nine postseason games, and that was an overtime contest. Much like the Blackhawks, they have their stars – Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry have shone the brightest. They also have their secondary scorers. Would you have picked Matt Beleskey to have a goal in five consecutive games against the Flames?

The Ducks are a sizeable group and they’ll hit, something the Blackhawks know. But their concern is with another part of Anaheim’s game.

“We’ve got to take away their rush game,” Andrew Shaw said. “They’ve got a lot of guys who like to wheel and like to score goals on the rush. That’s one of their main scoring strategies. So we’ve got to shut that down.”

[MORE: Blackhawks draw Ducks in Conference Final]

The Blackhawks are entering this series confident coming off their sweep of the Wild. But they know they have to treat this series in an entirely different manner. The further they get into the rounds, the higher the stakes grow.

“We have good feelings against them but you don’t want to fall into getting complacent at all, or feel like because things have gone well that they’ll automatically go well [this round],” Corey Crawford said. “We’ll have to battle hard and remember what it felt like in the last series to battle hard and be successful because of that, and do the same thing. Fight through things and be the same team we were no matter what happens.”

The Blackhawks haven’t seen the Ducks as often as the Wild or Blues or Kings, at least on the ice, but they have a pretty good idea what to expect. The tests get tougher the further they go in the postseason. This is no exception.

“We feel like if you progress in the playoffs, you’ve got to elevate your game to beat teams that have got a lot of confidence, and they’ve got to be playing the right way,” Quenneville said. “They’ve got a lot of things going for them. You look at the first two rounds: they played extremely well. So we’ve got to raise it.”

Evaluating Blackhawks options after Anton Forsberg is placed on waivers

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AP

Evaluating Blackhawks options after Anton Forsberg is placed on waivers

The Blackhawks have said all along that they don't plan on carrying three goaltenders, but wanted to do so during the three games in four days stretch just in case, with Corey Crawford coming back from a 10-month layoff because of a concussion.

After being encouraged by how Crawford has responded to his return, the Blackhawks placed goaltender Anton Forsberg on waivers Monday morning. Teams have 24 hours to put in a claim for the 25-year-old goaltender and would have to keep him on their NHL roster for 10 games and/or 30 days before he's eligible to go through the waiver process again.

His chances of getting claimed by any of the other 30 teams essentially depends on which teams believe Forsberg would be an immediate upgrade over their current backup — or starter, for that matter — or whether there's an injury to one of the team's two goaltenders that requires a placeholder, like we saw the Carolina Hurricanes do by claiming Curtis McElhinney from the Toronto Maple Leafs after Scott Darling's injury in the preseason.

If Forsberg goes unclaimed, the Blackhawks can assign him to the American Hockey League with the Rockford IceHogs. With Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen sharing the goaltending duties in Rockford, it's possible Lankinen gets sent to the Indy Fuel in the East Coast Hockey League to get consistent starts under his belt.

A third option, one that isn't very common but we've seen in the past as recently as last October with Maple Leafs goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo, is that Forsberg can be loaned to any AHL team while still being a part of the Blackhawks organization. This would allow the Blackhawks to keep Delia and Lankinen in Rockford while Forsberg gets his starts in the AHL, too.

Or, the Blackhawks could simply trade Forsberg to another NHL team that could stash him in the AHL, as long as he clears waivers. They did it last season with Chris DiDomenico, who cleared waivers as a member of the Ottawa Senators but was then traded to Chicago for Ville Pokka days later. Had DiDomenico been claimed by the Blackhawks, he would have had to stay on the NHL roster as noted above.

Forsberg was 10-16-4 with a 2.97 goals against average and .908 save percentage in 35 appearances last season but has not appeared in a game yet this year. He was acquired as part of the Brandon Saad package for Artemi Panarin in June 2017.

Blackhawks looking for defensive improvement from everyone, not just defensemen

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks looking for defensive improvement from everyone, not just defensemen

The Blackhawks were able to get away with their defensive lapses in the past solely because of Corey Crawford. When he went down with a concussion last December, those issues were magnified because he wasn't there to mask the flaws.

But it's reached the point where they can't rely on their goaltender to bail them out on a nightly basis, which is becoming another trend. Cam Ward allowed six goals to Tampa Bay on Sunday night, but made 49 saves — including 30 in the second period alone. He did everything he could to keep his team withing some sort of reaching distance and without his timely stops, the scoreboard could've looked much worse for the Blackhawks.

Something's got to change. 

When the Blackhawks talk about tightening things up defensively, they're not just putting it all on the defensemen. All five guys on the ice need to do their part and they're not doing it right now.

"I think we're trying to do too much and running around trying to do each other's job," Jonathan Toews said. "Sometimes we just need to simply and finish our checks and support each other."

No team has given up more even-strength high-danger chances through eight games than the Blackhawks at 110. That's 15.77 per 60 minutes. For reference, the New York Islanders finished worst in the league in that category last season and their number was at 12.96.

It didn't help that the Blackhawks spent nearly the entire second period in their own end on Sunday.

"We just couldn’t get it out of our zone, couldn’t get our stick on it, didn’t see pressure, didn’t feel pressure when we had it, were stripped," coach Joel Quenneville said. "Hence, we didn’t advance it. Kept looking like we were going up the ice and there were going to be some odd-man situations and then we’re the ones who were facing it."

That's one way to eliminate those high quality scoring chances, is getting the puck out of their own zone effectively or else it opens the door for Grade-A opportunities because of self-inflicted wounds. And it usually happens at the end of shifts when guys are tired, which often leads to goals.

"We have to learn how to play without the puck better and learn how to keep it," Quenneville said. "Whether it was our execution going up the ice, first pass poor and then we couldn’t change. A lot of things that happened yesterday were there tonight."

The Blackhawks weren't using three games in four nights as an excuse because Tampa Bay was in the same situation. It was an even playing field in that respect.

It's all about execution from everyone involved, forwards and defensemen. And the Blackhawks feel they're correctable issues.

"Of course," Toews said. "We've had some good periods this season so far. The first three, four, five games, everyone was excited and you guys are all talking to us much differently than you are right now. It's just getting back to playing that smart defensive game and playing with effort and letting our offense do the work. We know what's got to improve. It's right there in front of us."