I hate to say a play in the first period is the turning point of a game, but I'm pretty sure we saw that in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final between the Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks. When Ducks goalie Frederik Andersen made that huge save on Patrick Kane and deflected the puck off his goal stick, he changed the entire game. At that point the Blackhawks were really flying and getting one great chance after the other. If Kane manages to bury that puck, I think we have a different result.
This is great news for the Ducks because goaltending, if not a weakness, was at least something of a question mark heading into this series. It's been a strange season in the Anaheim net, from Jonas Hiller not getting re-signed to Andersen's great start and then John Gibson getting the job for a while. Now Andersen is back in net and he didn't have to be a great player in the first two rounds, but he did Sunday and he came through. Now he's facing a team with a ton of offensive firepower and in Game 1 he was the best player on the ice.
No one is putting Andersen in an elite class of goaltenders where they can steal a series yet, but he came up big when he needed to and showed that potential. More importantly, though, is that a confident goalie makes his team confident that he'll get the job done. When that happens, your defensemen and forwards can take more chances and be more aggressive. Usually that will make you a better player on the ice.
SPEED CAN KILL
Of course, with a team as talented as the Ducks, you have to wonder why Andersen needed to be so good in the first place. It seemed pretty clear to me that the Ducks were really caught off guard by the Blackhawks' speed. Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said as much when he was interviewed on the bench during the game, saying this game was faster than anything the Ducks saw in the first two rounds. Once the Ducks realized the Blackhawks is really quick and really fast, they started playing a little bit differently and moving their feet more. The Blackhawks blew a big opportunity by not scoring before the Ducks got used to their speed, which, I thought, didn't happen until about halfway through the second period.
The good news for the Blackhawks, though, is that they still played well. The final score was not indicative of how this game was played and these are clearly two even teams that probably have six more games to go. The Blackhawks will watch the tape and pull their hair out when they see all the good chances they had Sunday. They will see shots that hit something and went wide or hit the goalie. I think Chicago out-chanced Anaheim big time so they'll be selling that in the locker room before Game 2.
"Just do it again and we'll get the win."
They may be right, too. At some point the Blackhawks' speed and skill will have an impact that results in wins. These are two deep, well-rounded teams and I really think we're in for a seven-game series.
I am worried about the Blackhawks' defense after watching Game 1, however. David Rundblad clearly struggled at points and I don't know how much confidence coach Joel Quenneville can have in Kimmo Timonen either after that performance. People said when Michal Roszival went down that it wasn't a huge loss, but he was averaging 17 minutes a night. That's a lot of ice time to make up, and if Chicago's third pair can't pick up the slack that will take its toll on its top four defensemen.
The Blackhawks have a great top four, but it's not a huge defense. It relies on its speed and its skill. Duncan Keith isn't a big guy and he played 30 minutes against a very physical Ducks team in Game 1. If I'm Boudreau, I'm making sure to tell my players to punish Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya and Brent Seabrook every time they touch the puck. Check them and make sure you finish your checks. Make those defensemen go through you and make them log heavy minutes. Make them pay a price to play.
This kind of matchup and those kinds of minutes can really wear a group down after a few games, particularly with the travel and frequency of playing games every two days. The Blackhawks' top two pairs are among the best defensive pairs in the NHL, but this group is also thinner than it used to be. It will be very interesting to see if they can hold up under the minutes and the physical pounding the Ducks are likely to bring over the rest of the series.