The Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks have been two of the giants in the Western Conference for some time now, but somehow they have never met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That will change in the 2015 Western Conference Final and for anyone who follows hockey this has to be a series you've been waiting for. These are two teams we knew were bona fide championship contenders all season, are incredibly skilled, incredibly deep and should put on a great show for the fans.
They also might be a bit rusty by the time they take the ice. Each team wrapped up its second-round series quickly and will be waiting for several days before getting the conference final underway. Despite that rust, though, those quick early series will be a boon for each team. Chicago has some players playing a ton of minutes who will need the rest and the Ducks will be able to heal up as some players, like Corey Perry, might be sore and bruised. Rest is almost never bad in the playoffs.
The big question to me is can the Blackhawks handle Perry and Ryan Getzlaf every night. Those guys have been unbelievable. They just have the puck all night long, they're big and physical, and Perry isn't afraid to go to the front of the net and fight those battles. Add to that Ryan Kesler playing a superb game, Matt Beleskey now scoring and some great play by Cam Fowler, and the it's clear the Blackhawks will have their hands full.
ISSUES ON THE BLUE LINE
Michal Rozsival hasn't been the Blackhawks' top defenseman in the postseason, but his injury is still a big loss for Chicago. It looks like David Rundblad will be getting his spot in the lineup, but coach Joel Quenneville will carefully hand pick where and when and with whom he plays. That Getzlaf-Perry-Patrick Maroon line is just so big that whoever has to cover them, be it Niklas Hjalmarsson, Duncan Keith or Brent Seabrook, will definitely face a physical challenge.
If this series goes long, and it has the makings of six or seven-game epic, there will be some wear and tear on Chicago's defensemen, and that loss of depth will be shown. Quenneville knew what he'd get out of Rozsival. He's a solid defender who makes a good first pass, a player that competes and a player that's not going to beat himself. Losing a dependable defenseman is a big loss in the postseason no matter if he plays on your top pair or your third pair.
It will be very interesting to see how Quenneville handles Rozsival's absence. All of those star defensemen will have to pick up more minutes and tougher minutes. I don't know if after seven games we'll say Rozsival's absence is the reason the Blackhawks lost the series, but it will certainly make life more difficult for their defense.
LEGACY ON THE LINE
The Blackhawks and their fans will be heartbroken if they lose to the Ducks. No one is questioning that. But this is also a core group of players that already has two Stanley Cup championships. No one is ever going to look at this group and question its bloodlines. The Ducks, however, are a different matter. Almost no one is left from the team that won the Cup in 2007 and now the Ducks have the reputation of a team that hasn't won the big one.
That's if you even hear about them at all. The Los Angeles Kings have received all the ink in southern California, and rightfully so, but this is a chance for the Ducks to get some of that thunder back and remind people there's a pretty good team just a few miles south.
No one knows the kind of pressure this puts on the Ducks more than coach Bruce Boudreau. He's one of the winningest active coaches in the NHL and despite several high finishes in the regular season this is his first trip to the conference finals. People can argue all they want that they don't feel pressure, but there's something very real to having a monkey on your back. The Ducks' players feel it and Boudreau feels it. If they lose people will still say this is a solid team, but it can't get over the hump.
WHO IS GOING TO PLAY FOR THE CUP?
This is a hard series to handicap between two extremely worthy teams, but I picked Chicago at the start of the season and it's tough for me to change my mind. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa are all playing great. Patrick Sharp is starting to score, and they've got that pedigree. This is a team that just excels come playoff time.
In my mind, I have to actually see someone defeat the Blackhawks before I can really believe someone else is better. It may take seven games, but I think Chicago will be back in the Stanley Cup Final.