Western Conference Finals Preview: Hawks-Ducks

Raise your hand if you honestly thought the Blackhawks would be able to withstand a brutal best-of-seven series against the hottest team in the NHL – a team that we’d beaten two straight postseasons. With the hottest goaltender. After the Corey Crawford – Scott Darling debacle in round one? If you’re raising your hand like myself, consider yourself a full-blown idiot. I thought Minnesota would win that series handily, and we’d be stuck watching LeBron James neuter each and every Bulls player back to boyhood for the next two weeks, which is exactly what he did.

Good news is, I was dead wrong about the Blackhawks last series as we live to see this potential dynasty continue to build on to its legacy. This is the fifth Conference Finals appearance for the Blackhawks in the past seven years, and most pundits expect them to make their third Cup appearance in that span as well. Let’s break down why.

Offense

As well as the Blackhawks are playing coming into this series after making the scorching Devan Dubnyk look pedestrian in net (which he actually is, by the way), there is no hotter team in hockey than the Anaheim Ducks. They enter the conference finals with an 8-1 postseason record and a +20 goal differential in those nine games. It’s no coincidence, as this team tied St. Louis for most points in the Western Conference this season with 109 and are on a mission to prove their doubters wrong after two hugely disappointing playoff exits in as many years (first place regular season finishes in both).

Anaheim has outscored opponents 16-3 in the third period this spring, and they’ve won games they’ve trailed an incredible six times already, indicating that no lead against them is ever safe. Their 3.89 goals per game also leads the postseason. The Ducks boast three of the top seven points-getters in this year’s playoffs, led by five-time all-star and former Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry with 15 points. At 30 years of age, Perry has undoubtedly been one of the best players in the NHL over the past seven years; he enters the series tied with Patrick Kane for second in the playoffs with a +8, just ahead of his partner in crime, Ryan Getzlaf. The two stars are no strangers to success, as they helped the Ducks win their first and only Stanley Cup in franchise history way back in 2007. Perry and Getzlaf, along with the physically imposing presence of Patrick Maroon, form one of the best lines in all of hockey; each rank in the top eight in points this postseason.

With Getzlaf and Jonathan Toews having anchored two of Canada’s four lines en route to a 2014 gold medal (Perry, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith were all also on that team), the matchup between those two at the center of the ice will be as good as it gets. However, with all-do respect to the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames, neither of whom had reached the playoffs since 2007 and 2009, respectively, the Ducks have yet to face a team as battle-tested as the Blackhawks.

Chicago has not missed the playoffs since 2008, with five conference finals appearances and two Stanley Cups to show for it. They’ve also dealt with the adversity of playing without Patrick Kane for 2+ months, giving 20-year-old forward Teuvo Teravainen (whom I wrote about on draft night 2012) the opportunity to grow as a professional, as well as the Patrick Sharp adultery and sex-obsessive rumors and, of course, the puke-fest that was the Crawford-Darling roller coaster against Nashville in round one. Yet after all that, here they stand, back in the Conference Finals and going toe-to-toe with one of the most physical and consistent teams in the league.

It goes without saying that this Hawks team has been completely rejuvenated by the shocking, premature comeback and heroic play by Patrick Kane. He currently ranks second in the postseason in both points (13) and +/- (+8). He’s playing better hockey than anyone right now, having scored a goal (six goals overall) in five straight games heading into this series. He simply cannot be stopped right now, and it’s been a downright beautiful thing to witness.

The Hawks continue to own arguably the league’s deepest roster in terms of skill and speed. Because of that, they are phenomenal at tracking down the puck and maintaining possession of it, having ranked second overall during the regular season in both adjusted shot attempt differential at 54.4% and SAT at 543. For those of you stat nerds like myself, SAT is defined as the following:

  • Shot Attempts For – Shot Attempts Against
    • Shot Attempts For (5-on-5): Team shots on goal + team missed shots + opponent blocked shots (excluding empty net)
    • Shot Attempts Against (5-on-5): opponent shots on goal + opponent missed shots + team blocked shots (excluding empty net).

The Hawks offensive arsenal, as you know, is not much different from years’ past. They consistently beat their opponents with depth, skill and speed. Big, physical teams like Anaheim have rarely given them fits when it comes to scoring goals, but the game of hockey is much more than that. Let’s see what the blue liners have in store.

Defense

Anaheim is an absurd 33-1-7 (yes, 33-1-7) in one-goal games this season, an indication of a team that isn’t necessarily as great as it is lucky. The scary thing, however, is that they seem to be playing their best hockey at the right time, at least from a defensive perspective. After seeing their scoring chance differential drop below 50% in late February (meaning they were getting out-chanced by their opponents), Anaheim has seen that number jump to nearly 55%, which is driven by a dramatic decline in the number of shot attempts against them (Corsi Against is also known as SAT Against), reflected below.

Screen Shot 2015-05-17 at 10.31.39 AM

Source: SI.com

Not only that, but Anaheim has also posted far and away the best SAT Tied at 48 (followed by Chicago at 35) and SAT Close at 53 (“close” is defined as teams within one goal, or tied, in the 3rd period). The Hawks, on the other hand, seem to have moved in the opposite direction but are weathering the storm as of late. Needless to say, the Ducks are a team that is all but a lock to win close games, so the Hawks will have to get to them early and often if they’re going to win this series and avoid doing so in typical Hawks fashion (which is, as you know, making near miracle comebacks late in games).

From a player perspective, Chicago continues to rely on it’s four-headed defensive monster of reigning Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson. All four men are averaging more ice time per game (with Keith leading the way at 30:38) than anyone on Anaheim in the playoffs, which is probably more indicative of Coach Quenneville’s lack of trust in his two worst defensemen – Kimmo Timmonen, who’s averaging a measly 9:25 on ice per game, and Michal Roszival. With Roszival out for the season due to a fractured ankle that he suffered in Game 4 against Minnesota, David Rundblad now takes his spot.

Keith leads the postseason with a +10, followed by Cam Fowler and Simon Despres of Anahem, and Hjalmarsson, at +7, +6, and +6 respectively. Oduya and Hjalmarsson rank in the top of the league this spring in blocked shots, something that continues to remain constant each and every year.

Both teams match up fairly well defensively, and this series may very well come down to who can win close games. The Hawks clearly lack depth at the blue line right now, and it’s not hard to envision a physical Ducks team taking complete advantage of that over a long best-of-seven series. Based on this season’s results, Anaheim would have the edge. However, there is no defensive unit in the league as experienced and consistently good as that of Chicago, and if there’s any team in the world that can buck Anaheim’s trend of winning one-goal games, it’s them.

Goaltending

You all know the story by now. Corey Crawford was atrocious in the first period of Game 1 against Nashville, so Scott Darling replaced him. Darling held his own for a few games and then was atrocious in the first period of Game 5, so Crawford re-replaced him. Whatever happened to Crawford in between, no one knows, but the man channeled his inner Michael Jordan (Spacejam version with the secret weapon drink, chill people) and has since posted a ridiculous .951 save percentage. The Corey Crawford, as we know him, seems to be back with a hot hand and a vengeance – a man who, I hope, will not allow himself to lose his job again. Crawford still ranked 11th in the league this season in GAA at 2.29, and he, ya know, won a Stanley Cup what, like two years ago? If the confidence is there, watch the eff out.

On the other side of the ice will stand Frederik Andersen, a 25-year-old Danish stud playing in his second year. Casual hockey fans likely have no idea who he is, but Andersen has been really solid during his first two years in the NHL, as he sports a career record of 55-17-5 and career GAA of 2.35. He was pretty mediocre during the regular season but has been a completely different man this spring with a filthy 1.96 GAA in nine games, having allowed only 18 goals and managing to post one shut out. Also, Andersen has stopped 44 of 51″high-danger shots” he has faced this postseason (.862 save percentage), which ranks second amongst goalies with at least 500 minutes played. To be honest, I’ve never heard of “danger zones” in hockey until today, and I cannot find an actual definition anywhere. However, the stat sounded cool as hell, and it makes Andersen sound scarier than I thought. Just go with it.

Of the four goalies still remaining, Andersen and Crawford are the two worst right now (both Henrik Lundqvist of New York and Ben Bishop of Tampa Bay are on completely different levels right now), but they’ve both proven to be somewhat capable of taking over a series. Given Crawford’s experience, I’d say he certainly has the edge, but Andersen seems to be the next, young up-and-coming goalie who could be a force to be reckoned with.

Special Teams

Gun to my head, I’d tell you that this series, without question, will come down to special teams – specifically Anaheim’s power play against Chicago’s penalty kill. The Ducks lead the playoffs by a wide margin with a 31% success rate on the power play, which is nearly double their rate during the regular season, where they ranked 28th out of 30 teams in the league. To see a turnaround that dramatic is unprecedented, and one has to assume that a success rate like that, given such poor play beforehand, is unsustainable.

Chicago’s power play has remained pretty consistent, as they’re converting 20% of their one-man advantages into goals. However, it’s the penalty kill that is a cause for concern. During the season, the Hawks ranked in the top 10, killing penalties at an 83.4% rate. However, since the start of the playoffs, that number has dipped all the way to 72.7% (allowed nine goals in 33 chances), second worst amongst any team that survived the first round. Of the 10 games they’ve played thus far, the Hawks have allowed at least one power play goal in eight of them. If they don’t shore up this short-handed vulnerability in a hurry, they will be going home – no question about it.

One other little nugget: Anaheim’s second power play unit is manned by Ryan Kesler at center. Kesler has completely dominated in the face-off circle this postseason, having won 63.7% of his face-offs – easily the best rate for any full-time center. Chicago cannot allow Kesler to continue to win face-offs at a rate that high, especially when nearly every face-off during those two-minute power plays will occur in their own zone.

Prediction

I believe Chicago will shore up its special teams woes and bring Anaheim back down to earth. Experience will be huge, and a potential Stanley Cup matchup between two goliaths (Blackhawks and Rangers) is on the horizon.

Hawks in 6.

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About Adam Levy

Adam Levy is a diehard sports fan and grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. After graduating with a Master's Degree from Indiana University, he began working at a consulting firm in the loop. In his spare time, he watches sports, re-watches Seinfeld episodes for the 23rd time, plays pickup basketball, competes in sports leagues during the summer, and overvalues all of the players on his fantasy teams. He is extremely passionate about his teams and will likely be found curled up in the fetal position on his bed, crying and cursing after significant losses. If you like his insight, feel free to comment, follow him on Twitter @ChiCityBS, or email him at aplevy1@gmail.com.

Posted on May 17, 2015, in Blackhawks and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I enjoyed the article but I got lost on the analysis of ACT and SAT scores. I never did test well. The only thing missing from your insightful analysis is we have Coach Q, one of the winningest coaches in NHL history and a master technician. The Ducks are coached by Good Kid Bruce Boudreaux, a decent coach but he has no stache. Hawks in 7.

  2. Great points. Anyone who follows hockey should know of the gap between Coach Q and Boudreau. Q is the best coach in the league – I think that’s pretty clear. Boudreau is notoriously known for failing to live up to expectations in the playoffs – consistently coaching teams that finish in the top 2 or 3 in the league and losing early in the playoffs.

  1. Pingback: Stanley Cup Preview: Hawks-Lightning | The City of Broad Shoulders

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