The first six games of the Western Conference Final have been filled with unexpected plot twists, twists of fate, heroic efforts and the occasional appearance by a villain or two.
"For sure, it's been great," Anaheim captain Ryan Getzlaf said Friday. "We've had a blast with this series, this playoff in general. Going into Game 7], I think we were well aware these are two hockey teams that have a lot of top-end talent, right through the lineup. That's one thing we were definitely looking forward to, those matchups."
But, it all ends Saturday in Game 7 at Honda Center (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports). For the winning team it will be the best finale imaginable, a tale of redemption which will live on throughout the history of the organization. For the loser, it will be a bitter lasting memory of further failure which will erase many of the positive memories developed during the story arc of this series.
Each team suffered a painful Game 7 loss during last season’s playoffs. Chicago lost this very game last season, at home to the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings went on to win the Stanley Cup and the Blackhawks spent a summer playing the “what-if” game.
The Ducks also lost to the Kings in a memorable seven-game series in the second round. Anaheim blew a 3-2 series lead against Los Angeles, the same lead they held in this series until losing 5-2 in Game 6 on Wednesday at United Center.
Here are three keys for the Blackhawks in Game 7 that, if executed properly, will advance them to the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in five years.
Below are also three keys for the Ducks that, if executed properly, will end the run of heartbreak in Game 7s.
Ride the hot hands
There is no need to leave any gas in the tank. If the Blackhawks win Game 7, they can worry about replenishing the tank in the three days off before the Stanley Cup Final starts on Wednesday. If they lose, the summer will allow for all the rest they need.
So, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville will lean heavily on the players that got him here. The top-four on the blue line will be leaned on more heavily than usual and it would be shocking if No. 1 defenseman Duncan Keith plays less than 30 minutes in regulation. Kyle Cumiskey and David Rundblad, the two least-used defensemen, will likely see even less time than normal.
There is also the nuclear option of playing center Jonathan Toews and right wing Patrick Kane on the same line during even-strength situations. Normally, the Blackhawks two most productive forwards play on separate lines, but they were reunited in Game 6 and paid immediate dividends with a number of dominant shifts and a highlight-reel goal by Kane.
"I think we welcome the opportunity getting out there and helping the team out as much as we can," Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook said. "Obviously, some of our games have gone pretty long, so we've played a lot of minutes. But, you know, all the guys are looking forward to getting out there, you want to be out there in those situations."
And, their teammates know they will answer the bell.
"We know [our defensemen] been playing a lot of minutes, but I think they kind of relish that opportunity," Kane said. "They have been doing fine with it. Don't see any times of them slowing up or having any repercussions from playing those minutes. So I think they're accustomed to it, and they've been huge for us back there. I'm sure something they'll expect to do again tomorrow night."
Avoid early trouble
The Blackhawks still have nightmares about the start to Game 5 in Anaheim. The Ducks got off to a fast start and buried Chicago in a three-goal hole before the first period ended. Chicago dug all the way back and forced overtime before losing on a goal by Matt Beleskey in the first minute of overtime.
If the Blackhawks think they can survive another stagnant start, they are mistaken, says veteran Brad Richards.
"I don't think we'll talk much about Anaheim tomorrow, not because what kind of opponent they are, but we have to worry about ourselves, getting a good start," he said. "How they react, that's really up to them. But we want to come out and be a lot better than we were in Game 5 in this building in the first period because, you know, the odds are you're not going to come back from 2-0 and 3-0 all the time. So we'll worry about us, you know, and keep pushing. Hopefully at some point we get the advantage. But that will be our focus."
Embrace the opportunity
With a win in Game 7, Chicago advances to the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in the past five years and keeps alive a chance to win a third Stanley Cup championship in that same time span.
With the parity that dominates the NHL these days, those accomplishments would qualify as the makings of a modern-day dynasty. It is an opportunity that the Blackhawks do not want to squander. The core of this team knows they have the opportunity to do something special and they would prefer not to wonder what might have been, but what still could be.
"I mean, Game 7 is one of those things you envision," Toews said. "It's one of those things you dream about right along with hoisting the Stanley Cup, scoring that winning goal, all those things, whether it's the community rink or a backyard rink. I think we've all had pretty similar experiences growing up with the game of hockey.
"You know, this is what it's all about. I think you finally realize you've grown up, you've gone through a lot, worked hard to get to this level. It's the ultimate challenge to see what you've got as a player. Like [Richards] was saying earlier, it's a moment that we'll relish. You know, you try and will your way to win. I think given all that, given that passion we have on our team, I think we're feeling pretty good about our chances tomorrow."
On heels, not toes
To a man, the Ducks said they waited too long to get to their game on Wednesday in Game 6.
Goalie Frederik Andersen said Anaheim seemed “content” to escape the first period with the score 0-0. Getzlaf said the Ducks did not move forward until they were behind and, by then, it was too late. Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said his team reacted more than dictated the play.
They all know it will have to be a different story in Game 7.
"That's something that we've been talking about a lot," Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler said. "When we play to our capabilities, when we push the pace and we're on our toes, we feel like we're a difficult team to compete with.
"We need to have that mindset tomorrow regardless of the situation or the magnitude of where we are. We need to come out as the aggressors. That's something that we've talked about. We're a really good hockey team when we do that."
The team that has won the faceoff battle has won five of six games. In a series that has been so close, it is those little battles that can often prove to be the difference between two equal teams.
The ability to win faceoffs allows the winning team to possess the puck and, to a degree, dictate the matchups. With Anaheim owning the last change that could be key, especially as they try to match up against the combination of Toews and Kane or get away from a matchup against Keith.
"Faceoffs become very important," Boudreau said. "They've been great at home in faceoffs. We've been good at home in faceoffs. Whoever usually gets the puck [on the faceoff] has possession and it's usually in their zone. Makes it difficult to change. Hopefully we can win a lot of faceoffs tomorrow."
Chicago won 33 of 50 faceoffs in Game 6 and used that dominance to drive their offense, particularly in the three-goal second period when Anaheim was facing the long change and had difficulty getting the players it wanted out against Chicago’s lines.
Change the script
Since the final whistle in Game 6, the Ducks have had to discuss their past playoff failures at every turn.
They are tired of it. They want to relegate the past to the history books and not have it be part of their narrative any longer.
But, to do that, they need a positive result in Game 7. A good effort is no longer enough. They must get the win and they need to focus all their energy on that and not what has happened in the past or what will happen if they fail at another Game 7 hurdle.
"It's happened too often the last couple years," Ducks forward Corey Perry said of the Game 7 losses. “But you win tomorrow night, and people start talking about something different. We're not focused on the past. We're focused on tomorrow night, starting something different.
"It's one game to go play for the [right to go for the] Stanley Cup. You know, it doesn't get any more exciting than that. That's what we're talking about today: go out, go play your game, do what you normally do, don't try to do somebody else's job, you'll be OK."
Author: Shawn Roarke | Director, Editorial