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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.”

2019 NHL free agent focus: Five potential targets for Blackhawks

2019 NHL free agent focus: Five potential targets for Blackhawks

Stan Bowman has had a busy last couple weeks. He pulled off a pair of trades, landing defensemen Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan from the Eastern Conference. He drafted center Kirby Dach with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft that could turn into a franchise-changing player. And now he’s in the middle of negotiations with pending restricted and unrestricted free agents.

With the defensemen group starting to take shape, it appears free agency will be used to fill out the forward group. That could come via trades, also, but it really depends on the market.

So let’s identify five potential UFA targets for the Blackhawks ahead of Monday, when players are officially able to sign contracts:

1. Ryan Dzingel, LW

When Dzingel was with the Ottawa Senators, he was playing top-six minutes and earning power-play time because the Senators weren’t very deep. After getting traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets at the deadline, he struggled to be a fit there, didn't play much on the power play and was healthy scratched for one game in the playoffs.

But he still has value, although it may not be in an area that the Blackhawks need (penalty kill).

Dzingel, a Wheaton native, set a career high in goals (26), assists (30) and points (56) in 78 games this past season with the Senators and Blue Jackets. He can play in the top-six but might be more effective as a middle-six winger on a good team.

According to Evolving Wild, Dzingel is projected to earn a contract of four years with a $4.25 million cap hit. 

2. Anders Lee, LW

It’s a little surprising that the New York Islanders and their captain haven’t made any progress on a long-term extension. At the same time, it’s pretty clear that Lou Lamoriello is looking to make a big splash this summer in his pursuit of Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin, and needs financial flexibility to negotiate.

Lee is a perfect complementary top-six left winger who would look great next to Jonathan Toews or opposite Patrick Kane. He’s got size at 6-foot-3, 231 pounds, is reliable, scored 40 goals in 2017-18 and has a strong work ethic. Those qualities check a lot of boxes the Blackhawks are looking for.

Where it gets tricky is what his contract may look like. He's projected to receive in the range of a seven-year deal that carries a $6.5 million cap hit. The dollar amount is doable, but the term could scare the Blackhawks away as they prepare to sign Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome to long-term extensions next summer.

3. Gustav Nyquist, LW

The Blackhawks have been interested in Nyquist's services in the past, so they'll certainly look into him as a possibility now that he hits the open market.

Nyquist has scored at least 20 goals in four of his past six seasons, with 28 being his career high. But he's not known to be a goal scorer. He's a pass-first, playmaking-type winger and makes players around him better because of it. Nyquist is a consistent 45-55-point player.

His next contract is projected to be in the six-year, $5.6 million range, which — like Lee — is a fair dollar amount but the term may not be something the Blackhawks are crazy about. Bowman appears to be focused on free-agent forwards who can be signed on shorter-term deals.

4. Joe Pavelski, C/RW

Perhaps the most intriguing player on the free-agent market for the Blackhawks is Pavelski, who’s served as the San Jose Sharks captain but may not fit into their plans going forward because of their cap crunch.

Yes, he will turn 35 in July. And yes, he has a ton of mileage on his body. But he’s showing no signs of slowing down. 

Pavelski is a five-time 30-goal scorer who’s coming off a 38-goal season, can play both center and wing, and is an absolute gamer, a leader on and off the ice who shows up when the lights are shining brightest. He’s also not afraid to go to the dirty areas and is widely considered to be one of the best at deflecting pucks, which comes in handy on the power play.

What makes him an attractive piece is that Pavelski could be a player that makes an immediate impact but wouldn't require a long-term deal. He's projected to earn a three-year contract with a cap hit of $7.4 million. If the Blackhawks can get him at two years, that would be ideal. But like Patrick Marleau a few years ago in Toronto, his camp is probably looking for that third year.

5. Corey Perry, LW

Days after he was bought out by the Ducks, Perry’s name surfaced as a possibility for the Blackhawks. And it makes sense because the Blackhawks aren't looking to hand out long-term contracts.

Perry is 34 years old, a former Hart Trophy winner and 50-goal scorer, and is still a productive player when healthy. But that's the biggest concern. He missed 51 games this season with a knee injury, returned ahead of schedule and never looked the same on the ice.

Per the CBA, Perry can sign a one-year, bonus-laden deal and it appears that's what he'll do. A one-year contract in the $2-3 million with bonuses would be a low risk, high reward move for the Blackhawks.

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Sports Talk Live Podcast: What will be Stan Bowman's next move?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: What will be Stan Bowman's next move?

Gabe Ramirez, Vinnie Duber, and Jay Cohen join Kap on the panel to discuss game two of Cubs vs. Braves and the battle of the Soxes.

Plus with the start of free agency coming up, what will be Stan Bowman's next move?

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

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