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Five reasons Blackhawks advanced to Cup Final

by Brian Hedger

Prior to the Western Conference Final, the Chicago Blackhawks knew it would be difficult to eliminate the Anaheim Ducks from the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The best-of-7 series that followed was even more difficult than expected. The Blackhawks never held a series lead until clinching it in Game 7 with a 5-3 victory at Honda Center on Saturday.

They needed triple overtime to tie it in Game 2, needed double overtime to tie it in Game 4 and won the final two games consecutively after losing in Game 5 on a Ducks goal 45 seconds into overtime.

Chicago leaned heavily on its top four defensemen in lieu of the ankle fracture that knocked veteran Michal Rozsival out in the second round, took a physical beating from the bigger Ducks and still came out of it with a third trip to the Stanley Cup Final in a six-season window.

The Blackhawks got their redemption for falling an overtime goal short of playing in last season's Cup Final, but it wasn't easy. How did they pull it off?

Here are five reasons the Blackhawks advanced:

1. Top four tough enough -- The Ducks made no secret of their plan to exploit Rozsival's injury and the situation it created on the Blackhawks' blue line. Like previous teams with size and strength, the Ducks planned to pound Chicago's thin defense group into submission with a bevy of hits.

They figured it would pay off in the latter stages of the series, when the top four defensemen for Chicago would crumble physically. Anaheim did leave some marks on Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya, but the Blackhawks' top four never caved.

Keith and Seabrook in particular were outstanding. Keith had eight assists in the series to keep himself in the running for the Conn Smythe Trophy, while Seabrook had three goals and two assists. Along with Oduya and Hjalmarsson, all four played a lot of important minutes and paved the way to victory.

2. Wealth of experience -- If you look at playoff experience as a bank account, the Blackhawks are the highest rollers in the NHL and keep adding to their mountain of postseason riches.

They've played in nearly every situation a team can get into during a playoff series and found ways to win in each one of them. They probably had a few nervous feelings prior to Game 7 against the Ducks, but came into it with a quiet confidence based on all they've accomplished the past seven seasons.

The Ducks had some Game 7 experience as well, but it didn't stack up to the Blackhawks' and it showed in Chicago's win in the series finale.

3. Captain, seriously? -- It's become an expectation of Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, but it cannot be overstated how important he is to the Blackhawks' success. If he's not keeping things together inside the locker room, he's usually scoring or creating huge goals on the ice when they need it most.

It was no surprise to see Toews score the first two goals of Game 7, which put Anaheim behind the eight ball. The team that scored the first goal won every game in the series and Toews made sure it was the Blackhawks who took the first lead at Honda Center on Saturday.

Toews scored four of his five goals in the series in the final three games. He scored two in the waning stages of regulation to push Game 5 into overtime and started Game 7 with two more. Also not a surprise is how Toews is also in the running for the Conn Smythe Trophy, which would be the second of his career.

4. Crawford did it again -- At this point, seeing how goalie Corey Crawford has played the past two rounds, his struggles against the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference First Round seems like ages ago.

There were some who didn't think Crawford would bounce back after getting pulled in the first game of the postseason and benched two games later. Crawford quietly stewed but used his anger as a motivator rather than a detractor.

Crawford worked to get his timing right, waited for another opportunity to regain the starting role and hasn't looked back after relieving backup Scott Darling in the first period of Game 6 against the Nashville Predators. Crawford was great in the second round and just as good against the Ducks. Led by his effort to keep the game tied in three overtimes in Game 2, the Blackhawks stole an important game they could've easily lost.

5. Quenneville played his trump cards -- It's something he uses sparingly, but every so often Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville feels the need to put Toews and Kane back together on the top line.

They're usually split among the top two lines for a more balanced attack, but Quenneville will re-pair them in must-win situations from time to time. More often than not, it works. The Ducks found that out the hard way in this series, beginning with the third period in Game 5.

After Anaheim took a 3-0 lead, the Blackhawks got within a goal to start the third. Quenneville put Kane and Toews on the top line with Brandon Saad at left wing and away they went. Toews scored twice near the end of regulation to force overtime and force Quenneville to consider his options for Games 6 and 7.

Chicago's dynamic duo didn't start on the same line in Game 6 but quickly were put back together in the first period. They started Game 7 together and helped create the game's first three goals for a 3-0 lead.

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