The Chicago Blackhawks are back in the Western Conference Final for the fifth time in seven seasons. The Anaheim Ducks have reached the third round for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2007.
The Ducks needed nine games to get by the Winnipeg Jets in the first round and the Calgary Flames in the second; the Blackhawks needed 10, six games to defeat the Nashville Predators in the first round and a sweep of the Minnesota Wild in the second.
They are led by their top-line center and captain, Ryan Getzlaf of the Ducks and Jonathan Toews of the Blackhawks. Each can produce on offense but is more comfortable being a versatile leader who can excel in all phases of the game.
Ducks forward Corey Perry leads the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 15 points; Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane is second with 13.
Each team also has versatile defensemen who excel in transitioning the puck and goaltenders who have shown flashes of brilliance.
The Blackhawks won two of three games against the Ducks in the regular season.
"We have good feelings against them, but you don't want to fall into getting complacent at all or you feel like because things have gone well that they'll automatically go well [again]," Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford said Monday. "We'll have to battle hard and remember what it felt like in the last series to battle hard and be successful because of that and do the same thing."
Getzlaf and Perry continue have combined for 27 points in nine games, including four power-play goals. They set the tone for each series with a combined six goals and nine points in two Game 1s.
Perry's 15 points are more than he had in 13 playoff games last season.
"I think the Getzlaf line [with Perry and Patrick Maroon] just took control," Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said after Game 5 of the second round. "They didn't have a tremendous amount of chances to score … but below the circles I thought they controlled the puck extremely well. That makes it tough for defensemen to play against them when they're up against those three. It's a tough task."
Getzlaf has two goals; his effectiveness goes beyond statistics because he wins faceoffs and takes pressure off Ryan Kesler, who has excelled forechecking, in special teams and being a pest to the opposition.
Nine forwards other than Getzlaf, Perry and Kesler have at least one point, and 10 forwards have at least one goal.
Matt Beleskey set a Ducks playoff record by scoring in five straight games, all in the second round. Jakob Silfverberg has three multipoint games, and Maroon has four goals. Centers Nate Thompson and Rickard Rakell have filled bottom-six roles, and Andrew Cogliano, Tim Jackman, Tomas Fleischmann and Emerson Etem round out a versatile group.
The Blackhawks have gotten exactly what they've needed from their forwards through the first two rounds. They’re getting big goals from elite players, led by Kane, and a consistent four-line rotation with strong backchecking.
Kane has a point in seven straight games and scored five goals in four games against the Minnesota Wild in the second round.
Toews (11 points) and left wing Patrick Sharp (nine points) are in the playoff-scoring top 10. Right wing Marian Hossa has eight points, giving the Blackhawks four forwards among the League's top 21.
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, known for juggling his line combinations, found four lines he liked against Minnesota and stuck with them in all four games. The only change from the first-round series against the Predators turned out to be a key move: Quenneville replaced Kris Versteeg with rookie Teuvo Teravainen, who played well and scored the game-deciding goal in Game 1 to break a 3-3 tie late in the second period.
Teravainen, a center, is comfortable playing right wing. That allows Sharp to play his more comfortable spot at left wing with center Antoine Vermette between them. The retooled third line handled their defensive assignments and produced offensively.
This is a vastly improved unit from last season at both ends of the rink. Ducks defensemen have combined for 29 points in the playoffs. Francois Beauchemin, one of three players who were part of the Stanley Cup championship team in 2007, has provided veteran leadership and become a vocal role model for partner Hampus Lindholm. Beauchemin has six points in nine games, and passed Scott Niedermayer as the Ducks' all-time playoff scoring leader among defensemen.
Cam Fowler and partner Simon Despres are a combined plus-13 with four penalty minutes. Sami Vatanen leads Ducks defensemen with seven points and his partnership with stay-at-home Clayton Stoner has kept James Wisniewski out of the lineup.
It's a group that moves the puck well in front of goalie Frederik Andersen and is very active. Anaheim has allowed more than 30 shots on goal once in the playoffs.
Quenneville primarily was using primarily five defensemen when 36-year old Michal Rozsival sustained a season-ending broken ankle in the second period of Game 4 against the Wild.
Rozsival averaged 17:26 of ice time in the postseason, which leaves a void for the Blackhawks to fill.
David Rundblad, 23, will make his Stanley Cup Playoffs playoff debut in this series, but neither he nor 40-year old veteran Kimmo Timonen will absorb all of Rozsival's ice time. The more likely scenario is that Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya will play even more than they already were.
Keith is on the ice for more than half the game already (30:37), and the other three are averaging more than 24 minutes. That's five minutes a game more than the regular season for Keith, four more for Oduya, and two more each for Hjalmarsson and Seabrook.
The good news for the Blackhawks is that none of those four has shown signs of dropping off. That's especially true for Keith, whose two goals and eight assists put him in the top 10 among postseason scorers.
Minnesota scored seven goals against Chicago and the play of the defensemen was one reason for that.
It can be argued Andersen has elevated himself from No. 1 goalie to a true big-game performer. He has come up with big saves in the first two rounds, notably a stop on Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau in Game 4.
It also could be argued that Andersen hasn't been heavily tested in the playoffs, but his numbers are impressive: a 1.96 goals-against average and .925 save percentage through nine games.
Backup John Gibson missed the start of the playoffs because of the flu.
Crawford made sure there weren't any goalie changes for the Blackhawks against the Wild. He reasserted himself as Chicago's No. 1 goaltender after a turbulent first round against Nashville, when he was pulled in Game 1 and was the backup for the final four games of the series.
Rather than crumble, Crawford did what he usually does when faced with adversity: He found resolve from within and improved greatly. He made 30 saves in 1-0, Game 3 shutout of the Wild.
"The fire and that intensity I had before, I was kind of missing that edge for a couple games against Nashville," Crawford said Monday. "I had it for a little bit, but things opened up for me. I was able to get it back against Minnesota."
Each time Crawford has faced a rough patch he's responded with stretches of outstanding play.
"I think you learn that," Crawford said. "You go through the same things, and it's either something that'll bring you down or make you stronger. I'm pretty sure every player goes through stuff like that. It defines how you become as a player."
Backup Scott Darling is playoff-tested in case he's needed again.
Anaheim is 9-for-29 on the power play (31.0 percent), a remarkable uptick from a 28th-ranked regular season. It has scored two power-play goals four times in the playoffs after it did so six times in the regular season. Six players have scored on the power play, including two goals by Beleskey.
The penalty kill has been almost as impressive because the Ducks are active and deep with Beauchemin, Despres, Fowler, Getzlaf, Kesler, Silfverberg and Thompson among those handling shorthanded minutes.
The Blackhawks did nothing to improve their struggling penalty kill in the second round. They allowed three goals in 11 times shorthanded and their success rate stayed the same as the first round (72.7 percent).
The Wild scored power-play goals against Chicago in three of the four games. The exception was the Blackhawks' 1-0 shutout win in Game 3, when Chicago killed three power plays.
Entering the second round, the Wild had the top power-play percentage in the playoffs. The Ducks now have the top power play in the postseason.
Chicago's power play has climbed to a 20.0 percent success rate, second to the Ducks with the man-advantage among teams still playing.
Boudreau's best moves turned out to be non-moves because his lineup continued to win and stay healthy. He had no choice but to stick with it through the first two rounds.
Boudreau kept the Ducks in check when they won their first six games, and he coached it to a win in Game 4 of the second round after they lost for the first time in about a month. The Ducks twice had two days off between games in the second round and more than a week between the first and second round, and Boudreau and his staff used the extra preparation time well.
Boudreau no longer has to answer questions about his inability to get past the second round.
Quenneville's decision to play Teravainen rather than Versteeg worked well against the Wild. At some point he might decide to put Versteeg back into the lineup and the Blackhawks could get the same results.
Particularly at this time of year Quenneville doesn't bother with favorites or much outside opinion. He goes with what he thinks will win each game and series, and you can't argue with the results.
Quenneville will face a greater test defensively against Anaheim. Rozsival's injury creates a void to fill among the defensemen, and it appears Quenneville is ready to gamble on his top four defensemen getting the majority of the ice time going forward.
Jakob Silfverberg --
Right Wing - ANA
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 8 | PTS: 11
SOG: 23 | +/-: 5
The 24-year-old right wing is developing into a fine two-way forward. His offensive instincts have paid dividends since the second half of the season and he has three goals and eight assists in nine playoff games. He's a big part of Anaheim's forecheck, whether playing with Kesler, Thompson or Rakell, and his game fits in with what figures to be a skating series.
Corey Crawford -- The Ducks are averaging 33.8 shots per game in the playoffs, and the Blackhawks have allowed an average of 36.3 in their 10 postseason games. If those trends hold, that puts a lot of pressure on Crawford. Chicago has allowed a lot more shots to get through to the net than in past playoffs, and it's put Crawford in some tough spots. However, he's proven he can win games that way when he's sharp.
DUCKS WILL WIN IF … Their defense can handle the Blackhawks' skill and transition game. Anaheim was able to withstand odd-man rushes and high-quality chances against Winnipeg and Calgary, but the margin of error shrinks considerably against the Blackhawks. Boudreau said the Ducks have trouble against speed teams.
BLACKHAWKS WILL WIN IF … They can keep getting opportunistic goals from their core group of stars. Kane's outstanding play against Minnesota was a huge reason that series went the way it did. Kane, Toews, Hossa, Keith, Sharp, Seabrook and Brandon Saad are a lot for any team to shut down entirely, and the Blackhawks are banking on that leading them to back to the Stanley Cup Final.
Compiled by Curtis Zupke and Brian Hedger