After four games between the Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks, I think it's clear we might be seeing the best series of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs right now. Both teams are fantastic and each has done something remarkable this postseason. The Ducks, midway through the Western Conference Final, still haven't lost a postseason game in regulation. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, are the first team in history to win four multi-overtime games in one playoff tournament.
Those are two pretty impressive statistics that indicate not just the skill, but the character of both of these teams, and considering they had never played in the postseason before, it's amazing to watch not just how good both of these teams are, but how they're learning about the other. We talked about how the Ducks had to take time to adjust to the Blackhawks' speed in Game 1, but it looks like the Blackhawks are having to do the same thing. It's rare that Chicago has faced a team that can challenge them like this, and in the case of the Los Angeles Kings a year ago, it was a team that challenged them through its defense.
The Ducks have a great defense, but they're every bit as quick and fast as the Blackhawks are, and I'm not sure the Hawks have seen that before. More importantly, the Ducks aren't just fast, they're fast with incredible size. At the same time, the Blackhawks may have caught the Ducks off guard with their grit in addition to their speed. Chicago has been outplayed for large stretches of this series, but the series is even entering Game 5 on Monday (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports) because of how the Blackhawks have been able to dig deep in two lengthy overtime games.
SURVIVING THE BLITZ
Chicago's character has been a trademark of its run these past few seasons, but I'm not sure I've seen any team recover from something like the Blackhawks did in the third period of Game 4. Watching a 3-1 lead turn into a 4-3 deficit in less than 40 seconds can be devastating. I've seen something like that break a team and finish them off, and that could have happened. The Blackhawks could have been shell-shocked, fallen apart, and gone back to Anaheim facing a 3-1 series deficit.
Instead, the Blackhawks regrouped, scored a beautiful power-play goal, and then won it in overtime on a goal by Antoine Vermette, someone who had not only been a healthy scratch the previous game, but who committed a turnover that led to one of those Anaheim goals.
This is a team that has overcome a tremendous amount of adversity in the postseason over the past six seasons. This is a team that has rallied to win individual games and has rallied from 3-1 series deficits. To me, gathering itself after a stunning turn of events like this might have been Chicago's most impressive feat.
STORY OF THE BLUE LINE
It's no secret that this series could be decided by the defensemen of each team. Chicago's struggles with its third pair have played a massive role, and guys like Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook aren't just playing massive minutes, they're being paired with guys like Kimmo Timonen and Kyle Cumiskey as a way to guard against some of the Blackhawks' weaknesses.
It's clear, though, that the Ducks think physically wearing down the Blackhawks' defensemen is the answer. They don't think Keith, Seabrook or Niklas Hjalmarsson can play all these minutes all series. It hasn't paid off yet in the first four games, but it'll pay off in the last three when they're worn down and begin making bad passes. That's the plan. So far the Blackhawks defense has been equal to the task, but it's going to be a test of wills before the series ends.
We're also seeing that not only are the Blackhawks facing some tough odds with their defense, but the Ducks defense is very good and very deep. We know about guys like Francois Beauchemin and Cam Fowler, but a lot of these defensemen, such as Sami Vatanen and Clayton Stoner, aren't household names. Just think about this: James Wisniewski would probably be a top-four defenseman on 20 different teams in the NHL, and he can't crack Anaheim's top six.
So far the forwards for each team have played well, gotten some scoring chances and more or less played evenly. Each goalie has been very good for most of the series. That means this will probably come down to the defense, and whether or not the Ducks can wear down the Blackhawks enough. To this point, it looks like depth favors the Ducks, but we're still tied at 2-2, aren't we?
We'll begin to see tonight if the Ducks' strategy of pounding a thin Chicago defense is working. If the Blackhawks can keep themselves together and pull this series off, their defense might be even better than we thought, and that's saying something.