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Analysis: Ducks can counter Blackhawks' pedigree

by Corey Masisak /

ANAHEIM -- If recent history is any indication, the 2015 Western Conference Final, though tied 2-2, is over.

The Chicago Blackhawks have been even after four games in a best-of-7 Stanley Cup Playoff series seven times since Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith starting enjoying postseason success, and seven times they have won the series, never needing a Game 7.

Yes, the core group of Blackhawks is 14-0 after a series gets to 2-2, winning Game 5 and Game 6 each time.

The Anaheim Ducks have spent the 2015 playoffs trying to prove their recent history does not define them, and they have plenty of reasons to believe the Blackhawks will not be able to win the next two games, let alone two of the next three to advance the Stanley Cup Final.

For starters, this Ducks team is really good and has two of the last three games at home, starting with Game 5 on Monday (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

Anaheim had plenty of regular-season success since coach Bruce Boudreau arrived but in past seasons fell short in the playoffs.

These Ducks have not played like previous editions. When general manager Bob Murray added defenseman Simon Despres (while subtracting Ben Lovejoy and Eric Brewer) and forward Jiri Sekac before the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline, the Ducks got younger and more skilled.

The defense has gotten steadily better, and Anaheim's puck-possession numbers have improved because of it. The Ducks always had plenty of talent up front, but Bryan Allen, Mark Fistric and Lovejoy/Brewer were a drag on the team's ability to skate and pass the puck out of danger to get those forwards into the offensive zone.

Anaheim was a middle-of-the-pack possession team for years, but the Ducks soared toward the top of the NHL in shot attempts percentage (SAT%) and unblocked shot attempts percentage (USAT%) from the trade deadline until the end of the regular season.

It has manifested in better play during the postseason. The Ducks are 10-3 in the playoffs and have not lost a game in regulation. The Blackhawks have not been able to dominate them for long stretches like other good possession teams have in the past.

The Ducks have said they learned from the Los Angeles Kings last season, and this roster on paper is nearly the equal of the 2014 Kings, who won the Stanley Cup. The Ducks are good enough, and can play the way that is needed, to defeat the Blackhawks.

Anaheim also has reason to believe this is not the same Chicago team that has dominated opponents late in series. The state of the Blackhawks defense has been a constant source of discussion throughout the conference final.

Losing Michal Rozsival to a fractured ankle sustained in Game 4 of the Western Conference Second Round was a huge blow, not because Rozsival is a great player, but because it was the one position where the otherwise deep and talented Blackhawks could not afford to lose someone.

Coach Joel Quenneville does not trust his options beyond the top four to play them what a normal No. 5 or No. 6 defenseman would usually play. He did that in the past with Nick Leddy, leaving him on the bench for long stretches in each of the past two postseasons.

Duncan Keith
Defense - CHI
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 10 | PTS: 12
SOG: 45 | +/-: 6
This is different. Quenneville is trying to limit the ice time of two defensemen instead of one. It's rare to see a defenseman play the fewest minutes for either team in a game, and it's almost unheard of to see two defensemen on the same team play less than the other 34 skaters.

Trying to win a series like this while leaning so heavily on four defensemen would be difficult under any circumstances. Add how big and physical the Ducks are, and their desire to punish the Blackhawks defensemen as often as possible, then add two long overtime games in five days, not to mention two long overtime games in the first round.

Keith is a world-class player. If the Blackhawks advance, he almost certainly would start the Cup Final as Chicago's favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy.

He's averaging more than 32 minutes over 14 playoff games, and almost 37 minutes in the conference final. Four times he's played at least 39:51.

His lungs and his legs might be able to handle that, but that's because he's a Hall of Fame-caliber player and one of the best-conditioned athletes in the NHL. Expecting four defensemen, whatever their ability, to handle an extremely increased workload and the excess physical pounding is much tougher.

The Blackhawks may win the next two games and continue one of the most amazing streaks in the sport. In a few days there might be lots of stories about the resolve of a champion, and how the Chicago stars willed their way into their third Cup Final in six seasons.

Recent history suggests that's what is going to happen. The Ducks don't think so, and they've got plenty of reasons to believe they are correct.

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