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?

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."