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?

NHL trade market starting to crystallize for Blackhawks ahead of deadline

NHL trade market starting to crystallize for Blackhawks ahead of deadline

The New Jersey Devils swung two deals over the weekend, trading veteran defenseman Andy Greene to the New York Islanders for defenseman prospect David Quenneville and a second-round draft pick in 2021, and Blake Coleman to the Tampa Bay Lightning for forward prospect Nolan Foote and a first-round pick in 2020 that originally belonged to the Vancouver Canucks. A solid haul for a Devils team looking to stockpile future assets.

On Monday, the Canucks acquired coveted winger Tyler Toffoli from the Los Angeles Kings for forward Tim Schaller, the rights to forward prospect Tyler Madden, a second-round pick in 2020 and a conditional pick in 2022. It was a surprising move at the time, but more clarity was provided after it was revealed that star winger Brock Boeser could miss the rest of the season with an upper-body injury.

Things ramped up big-time on Tuesday:

— The Winnipeg Jets acquired depth defenseman Dylan DeMelo from the Ottawa Senators for a 2020 third-round pick.

— The Washington Capitals landed top-four defenseman Brenden Dillon from the San Jose Sharks for a 2020 second-round pick and 2021 conditional third-round pick. The Sharks retained 50 percent of Dillon’s $3.27 million cap hit.

— The St. Louis Blues acquired depth defenseman Marco Scandella from the Montreal Canadiens for a 2020 second-round pick and 2021 conditional fourth-round pick. The Canadiens retained 50 percent of Scandella’s $4 million cap hit.

— The Vegas Golden Knights are reportedly finalizing a trade with the Kings for two-time Stanley Cup champion defenseman Alec Martinez that could involve two second-round picks going to Los Angeles. It’s worth noting Martinez has one year left on his contract after this season that carries a $4 million cap hit. The deal may not be announced until Wednesday.

The three defensemen moved were pending unrestricted free agents, which gives Blackhawks a better feel of what they could get in return for Erik Gustafsson.

The activity is likely far from over in the Western Conference.

The Colorado Avalanche are one of the favorites to come out of the West but have been decimated by injuries to key pieces as of late.

Top-six center Nazem Kadri (leg) is expected to be out until mid-to-late March. Versatile winger Matt Calvert (oblique strain) will miss multiple weeks. Starting goaltender Philipp Grubauer’s (lower-body injury) timeline is still up in the air. And two-time 80-plus point-getter Mikko Rantanen reportedly broke his collarbone on Monday and could be sidelined for six to eight weeks, which could end his regular season.

The Avalanche are projected to have $26.9 million in cap space going into the trade deadline, so money is clearly not an issue. Their prospect pool is also loaded, highlighted by defenseman Bowen Byram and forward Alex Newhook, both of whom were taken in the first round of the 2019 NHL Draft at No. 4 and No. 16, respectively. The Avalanche still own their first-round pick in 2020, too.

If the Blackhawks declare themselves sellers, they could be an attractive trade partner for a team like Colorado, who isn’t looking to take on longer-term contracts that would interfere with extensions for Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar down the road.

RELATED: Blackhawks look to right the ship before it's too late

For one, the Blackhawks have two No. 1 goaltenders in Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner, both of whom are set to become UFAs at the end of the season. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman wrote in his weekly 31 Thoughts column on Tuesday that he believes Colorado has checked in on Crawford, but it remains unclear how the Blackhawks will handle their goaltending situation.

Brandon Saad won’t necessarily be on the trade block with one year left on his contract after this season, but would the Blackhawks consider attaching him with one of their goaltenders to sweeten their own return? The Blackhawks will certainly have options.

"I've been doing it long enough where you get some really interesting ideas as you get closer to the deadline," GM Stan Bowman told NBC Sports Chicago on Feb. 7. "General managers tend to be more open-minded at that time of year of things you never thought that people would propose. I'm not expecting anything. I'm just going to let it play out the way it does and we'll take it as it comes."

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Blackhawks experiment with power play that ranks dead last in NHL

Blackhawks experiment with power play that ranks dead last in NHL

The power play has been a struggle all season long for the Blackhawks, who slipped to dead last in the NHL with a 14.0 percent success rate after going 0-for-14 with the man advantage on their five-game road trip.

It's not the primary reason the Blackhawks are outside of the playoff picture but it's certainly one of the main reasons they picked up only two out of a possible 10 points in Western Canada. Their two best power play performances were in Edmonton and Vancouver, where they generated a combined 16 scoring chances and six high-danger chances on their eight opportunities.

Back at practice in Chicago on Tuesday, the Blackhawks experimented with some different looks. 

Patrick Kane, Dominik Kubalik, Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews and Erik Gustafsson made up the first unit in a 1-3-1 setup, which has been the structure all season. The second unit, however, was in a box-and-one-type setup with Adam Boqvist and Duncan Keith running the point, Kirby Dach in front of the net, and Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome at the faceoff circles.

"It's a little bit different," DeBrincat said. "We're just playing to our strengths. For us, we're trying to move it along the outside and converge the net. We have two D on [our unit], so for them, it's controlling the blue line and getting pucks on net. The other one is a little bit more of a traditional look, but I think both could be deadly and hopefully that happens."

The Blackhawks spent a majority of practice working on the power play. And rightfully so. Production at 5-on-5 hasn't been an issue; They rank thirteenth with 122 goals. But on the power play, they have scored only 25 times after tucking in 48 last season.

"Just trying to get the reps," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "Nothing really new, though. It's just more like getting confidence, and having, for the players, a chance to go through some options and have conversations under pressure."

With the penalty kill performing at a top-10 level this season, a hot power play could be the difference between making a final playoff push and not for the Blackhawks.

"The power play has been something that hasn't been clicking this year," Kane said. "That's something we're trying to improve on and get better at. ... I think it's been pretty good lately. Right now it's just a matter of getting a bounce here or there, and getting some confidence off that."

Attention Dish and Sling customers! You have lost your Blackhawks games on NBC Sports Chicago. To switch providers, visit mysportschicago.com.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Blackhawks easily on your device.