ANAHEIM – Pucks and palm trees, a supposed backdrop for Sunday’s battle of hockey titans, yielded briefly to the distinct aroma from a different form of vegetation. There was a rock concert at the previous evening at the Honda Center, so motorized fans worked overtime before paying fans were admitted to Game 1 of the Western Conference Final.
Thus that sweet odor, often associated with peace and love, was nowhere to be smelled when, about 20 seconds into the first shift, Ryan Kesler changed the narrative to strictly business as expected by bumping Jonathan Toews. By the time this best-of-seven series is concluded, there is every chance the Blackhawks will detest Kesler and his pals as intensely as when he scowled in behalf of the Vancouver Canucks.
Kesler’s new squadron, the Anaheim Ducks, won this matinee 4-1 on goals by – ready? – Hampus Lindholm, Kyle Palmieri, Nate Thompson and, into a net vacated by Corey Crawford, Jakob Silfverberg. Stars abound on both sides, so if they cancel each other, there will mean a heap of neutralizing. It’s happened before, where names to be Googled take over. It’s also no earthquake that the Blackhawks dropped their initial road game in a playoff series. They did so four times in 2013, but won a Stanley Cup anyway.
The Blackhawks did not fall here because of too much rust or too much rest, but maybe because they directed more pucks than bodies toward Frederik Andersen. He was solid, and at least one one foray, spectacular. During the sixth minute of the first period, the Blackhawks’ best, Patrick Kane had the Anaheim goalie down and out. Kane correctly said he thought he did just about everything right on the play, but Andersen got enough of the puck to keep matters scoreless. Looking back after it was over, Anaheim Coach Bruce Boudreau noted with perhaps a bit of hyperbole that the Blackhawks generated eight prime chances before the Ducks produced any.
Only after Brad Richards picked Francois Beauchemin’s pocket – one of several Ducks turnovers – did Andersen succumb. That cut the Blackhawks’ deficit to 2-1 late in the second, a situation they could not rectify during two Anaheim penalties early in the third. What might the Blackhawks want to fix about their power play? Quoth Kane: “Everything.”
David Rundblad, brought out of mothballs upon the injury to Michal Rozsival, found himself right in the middle of things on both of Anaheim’s first two goals. But it feels a bit harsh to condemn Rundblad, who played only 10 minutes and 45 seconds, or about twice what Kimmo Timonen logged. The Blackhawks’ top four defensemen, in what does not constitute breaking news, all performed heavy duty. Duncan Keith skated 28:23 and was minus-3. Not fair to blame him, either.
The Ducks were credited with 44 hits, 22 blocked shots and 41 faceoff wins. The Blackhawks were 34, 9 and 38 in the same categories. Even if you ascribe those numbers to generous statisticians, the truth is that Anaheim is to Chicago what Chicago is to Anaheim. With all respect to the Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames, Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild, the Ducks and Blackhawks are both upgrading with these semi-final exams.
Despite the excellence of the Ducks, who won a Cup in 2007, hockey here is still a slowly acquired taste in certain aspects. For instance, a local TV show dissecting the goalie comparison displayed elaborate graphics pitting Crawford versus “Anderson.” Not Andersen. Then again, if the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness can be American Pharoah, not Pharaoh, who are we to conduct spelling bees?
Speaking of which, besides those different smells, there are different sights this time of year. On Saturday, as Head Coach Joel Quenneville prepared for his last pre-series press conference, a giant screen above showed none other than Eddie Olczyk, a fellow railbird handicapping the aforementioned Preakness from Baltimore while on a national television gig. Olczyk bleeds hockey as an expert analyst, and Coach Q is going to the Hall of Fame. But an hour before the second of the thoroughbred industry’s Triple Crown, they made eye contact thousands of miles apart. When they see each other again, Eddie O will pump Quenneville about the Blackhawks, and Q will corner Eddie O about the race.
You hear different sounds too. Kane and Kesler are fellow Americans who participated in two Winter Olympics together. When probed, Kane almost whispered apologetically that, yeah, they are sort of friends. But it’s still only Game 1.