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.
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?