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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?

2019 Blackhawks development camp: Final thoughts and takeaways from scrimmage

2019 Blackhawks development camp: Final thoughts and takeaways from scrimmage

Thoughts and takeaways from the final day of Blackhawks development camp at Fifth Third Arena, which featured the prospect scrimmage:

1. The standouts

In the middle of the week, GM Stan Bowman singled out Adam Boqvist, Kirby Dach, Ian Mitchell and Alex Nylander as the four players who had stood out so far, in large part because they're on another level in terms of talent. Dach was taken No. 3 overall, Boqvist and Nylander were drafted No. 8 overall and Mitchell has first-round talent and the confidence to go with it.

In particular, Boqvist and Dach were easily the most noticeable prospects during Friday's scrimmage. They were flashy, creative and produced on the scoresheet. Boqvist finished with a primary assist — a beautiful setup, which you can see in the video below — while Dach scored two goals and added an assist. They were all over the ice. Check out the clips below, as the two of them dominated the highlight reel.

2. Additional observations

—  Josiah Slavin had a hat trick, including the game-winning goal with 6.9 seconds remaining. He made the most of his scrimmage, no doubt.

— Antti Saarela scored two goals, one of which came on a penalty shot — see video below. 

— Nylander didn't seem as engaged as others, but his skill alone was enough for him to be noticeable. Good things happened when he was on the ice.

— Alexis Gravel was solid in net. He gave up only one goal and it came in the final minute of the first period when Dach scored on a breakaway.

— Nicolas Beaudin and Alex Vlasic were quiet, but in a good way. They were sound defensively.

3. Names to watch going forward

— Philipp Kurashev: A crafty playmaker with a heavy shot, Kurashev took a huge step in his development this past season. He led the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL with 65 points (29 goals, 36 assists) in 59 games and earned All-Star honors at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship after leading all skaters with six goals.

He's a smooth skater, fast, smart and strong on the puck. Kurashev will start the season in Rockford and is expected to play a large role. He was the hidden gem in the Ryan Hartman deal in 2018. The Blackhawks used their fourth-rounder acquired in that trade to take Kurashev.  

— MacKenzie Entwistle: This is a player to watch in Rockford this season simply because he knows his role and is really good at it. A bottom-six, versatile forward who can play center or win and is dependable on the penalty kill. Those are players coaches love to have at the next level because they accept their role and take pride in doing so. 

— Brandon Hagel: Here's a player who essentially fell into the Blackhawks' laps. The Buffalo Sabres drafted him in the sixth round (No. 159 overall) in 2016 but did not offer him a contract ahead of the June 1 deadline in 2018, so they lost his signing rights. The Blackhawks pounced in October by signing him to a three-year, entry-level contract.

And how did he follow his season up? By finishing fourth in the WHL in scoring with 102 points (41 goals, 61 assists) in 66 games with the Red Deer Rebels for a points-per-game average of 1.55. It was a 43-point improvement from the previous season, albeit he played in 10 more games. 

Still, this is someone who the Blackhawks weren't expecting to have in their pipeline but he is and could turn into a solid player. A scout once told me Hagel is highly competitive, which is one of the top criteria for the Blackhawks when evaluating a young player. Hagel appeared in eight games for Rockford last season and compiled only one point, but it's a small sample size. It will be interesting to follow his progression in his first year as a pro and playing against bigger men.

Other notes:

— Jake Wise participated in on-ice sessions all week but did not play in the scrimmage. He's still working his way back from a shoulder injury.

— Other non-participants: Evan Barratt (hip), Parker Foo, Dominik Kubalik (rest), Niklas Nordgren (injury) and Tim Soderlund (visa issues).

Scrimmage videos:

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2019 Blackhawks development camp: Day 4 thoughts and takeaways

2019 Blackhawks development camp: Day 4 thoughts and takeaways

Here are four thoughts and takeaways from Day 4 of Blackhawks development camp at Fifth Third Arena:

1. MacKenzie Entwistle's growth

When the Blackhawks traded Marian Hossa's contract to Arizona last summer, Entwistle was perhaps viewed as a throw-in on the surface in the seven-player deal. But he certainly wasn't viewed that way by the Blackhawks.

Entwistle was drafted in the third round, No. 69 overall in 2017. The Blackhawks had the very next pick at No. 70 overall and were preparing to take him. They ended up selecting Andrei Altybarmakyan instead, but the organization had their eye on Entwistle and it was important for him to be included in the deal with the Coyotes.

Entwistle took a big step in his development this past season. He started the season as captain of the Hamilton Bulldogs in the OHL, was traded to Guelph Storm and averaged more than a point per game. Guelph went on to win the OHL championship, and he was a key reason why.

In between all that, Entwistle represented Team Canada at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship. He scored three goals in five games and shined in a bottom-six, penalty-killing role. And that's exactly what he sees himself doing at the pro level, which the Blackhawks like to see when players accept what kind of players they are.

"I was kind of slotted into a role that was sort of an energy, penalty kill sort of type of player," said Entwistle, who's up 10 pounds from last year. "And I think for me that really helped me and it grew me as a player because at the next level that's sort of the player I'm going to be and I've kind of accepted that."

2. Alex Vlasic holding his own

The biggest skater at Blackhawks prospect camp is Vlasic, who was taken in the second round (No. 43 overall) in June. He's 6-foot-6, 198 pounds and is an absolute tower when you put him up against some of the undersized forwards.

He's a defensive-minded defenseman, and that's something the Blackhawks are excited about because he would complement their other offensive-minded blue liners well in the pros. At least that's what they're hoping.

Skating is going to be something he has to continue to work on given his large frame, but the Blackhawks feel he's ahead of the curve in that department and don't see it as a concern.

"He's pretty smooth," GM Stan Bowman said. "I think that's always the challenge with guys that big. He covers a lot of ground with his reach but his skating, he's kept up quite well being one of the youngest guys here. He's tough to play against, he defends really well and I think that's a strength of his guy. So I think it's just going to be a progression for him. He seems to have a pretty good understanding of his path and he's not trying to make the NHL [right away], he understands he's got some growth to do and I think those are the players that end up figuring it out as he's got a good idea of what it's going to take to become an NHL player."

Vlasic reiterated that he expects to play at Boston University for "maybe two or three years and then figure out what I'm going to do from there." Chad Krys recently turned pro after three years at BU, and Jake Wise is going into his sophomore season. Vlasic has been spending time around them this week, which has made it "pretty comfortable for me."

3. Nicolas Beaudin's transition to pro

The Blackhawks have high hopes for Adam Boqvist and Ian Mitchell, both of whom have been standouts at development camp. Same with Kirby Dach and Alex Nylander up front. 

Beaudin is kind of the forgotten guy, which seems odd because he was taken in the first round in 2018. But it might be because there's still a lot of room to grow in his game. 

After four years in the QMJHL, Beaudin is turning pro and is expected to start the season with the Rockford IceHogs. The Blackhawks like that they'll be able to have more of a hands-on approach in his development with him being under their roof on a daily basis.

"He's a smaller defenseman so it's going to be the defending part," Bowman said on what Beaudin's biggest transition might be. "We like his two-way ability. He was probably the top defenseman in the Quebec League last year. He was on a good team and played a lot of minutes. Played all situations there so you're trying to find your niche as a defenseman and I think the biggest thing is don't get away from what you do well.

"He's a pretty smart player, he's got some creativity to his game. He's not a high-risk player but he's got the ability to play offense as well as be defending and learning at his size how to play against bigger players. Have a good stick, use his feet and his brain to defend. All the attributes you want a player in the NHL to have. Good gap, force players to unload the puck before they're ready to and when he gets it he makes pretty smart decisions with it. So it's not one thing with Beaudin, it's becoming an all-around defenseman."

4. Dominic Basse’s side of the Mark Kelley story

One of my favorite stories from the NHL Draft came after the Blackhawks drafted Basse in the sixth round (No. 167 overall), and it waas told by Blackhawks VP of amateur scouting Mark Kelley, who shared the journey he went on to scout Basse for the first time:

"The first time I went to see him this year I drove in a snowstorm. Luckily it was 45 minutes from my house to get there and I got there and I get situated and I look out there, watched a little warmups, the game starts and he was on the bench. So he was coming off between periods, he was the last guy and I said to him, 'Hey, you! When are you playing?' And he told me: 'I'm going to be the starter tomorrow and Monday.' So I came back. He caught my eye."

I caught up with Basse on Thursday and got his side of the story and whether he recalls the encounter:

"I actually remember him. Good thing I didn't say something bad. I thought he was just a parent. I was walking through and he's like, 'Hey! When are you playing?' I was just surprised and was like: 'Sorry sir, I play this day and this day.' And he's like, 'alright' and just left and I thought, 'OK, that's that.'"

That was the only time Basse had any interaction with Kelley. He saw the interview of Kelley explaining his side after the draft ended, but it wasn't until development camp when he actually put a face to the name.

"I kind of made a little sense of it when I came to prospect camp and I saw his face again and I was like, 'Oh wait I think I remember that face. I've seen him somewhere.' And then it all came together when he said that during the interview. It was pretty funny."

Other notes:

— Kyle Olson did not participate in the on-ice session because of an illness. 

Videos:

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