ANAHEIM – For the better part of a week, observers have been trying to divine how the Chicago Blackhawks will survive the long layoff before the start of the Western Conference Final.
The speculation continued Saturday as the Blackhawks ran through a brisk practice at Anaheim Ice, making final preparations before Game 1 against the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).
As the Blackhawks performed some line rushes and took part in a short scrimmage, the hunt was on for signs of rust or ennui in their game. But Chicago coach Joel Quenneville was not worried, even though his team's last game was on May 7, a 4-3 victory against the Minnesota Wild that finished off a second-round sweep.
“We had two really good practices prior to flying out here [Friday],” Quenneville said. “I liked our practice [Saturday]. But we want to play hockey, play real games. I think our team gets measured way better on how we play than practice.”
After close to 10 days off, the Blackhawks are ready to get back at it, to hit someone other than a teammate, to try to find a weakness in a goalie other than Corey Crawford or Scott Darling, to get away from trying to outwit Duncan Keith or Brent Seabrook on a zone entry.
“It’ll be fun,” said forward Patrick Kane, who has seven goals in nine playoff games. “You know, we all love playing the game; we love playing hockey. It's a great opportunity for us to go up against a great team. I think it's a new challenge for us. We never faced this team in the playoffs. That's exciting for us.
“After these 10 days, whatever it's been, it's going to be exciting just to get out there and play a game that means so much. I think we're all looking forward to it.”
The fact that the stakes are so high and the matchup is such a compelling one has allowed Chicago to weather the inactivity better than it might have earlier in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Ducks finished first in the Western Conference and have been a fixture at the top of the standings for several years. They won the Stanley Cup in 2007 and have several holdovers from that team, including the one-two punch of forwards Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, a duo as feared as the Kane-Jonathan Toews duo that drives Chicago's attack.
“We know we've got a tough opponent,” said defenseman Duncan Keith, who will see the majority of the minutes against Anaheim’s top line. “We haven't played these guys [in the playoffs], like Kane said. There's that excitement, as well. We're a group of guys that's excited to get the series going. It's been a long layoff. We all want to get it going.”
Defense - CHI
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 8 | PTS: 10
SOG: 29 | +/-: 10
For Chicago's players, the layoff may have been more of a curse than a blessing. But now that it is almost over, the attempt to look at the bright side is in full force.
For Keith, who has played an average of 30:37 per game, the most among active players in the playoffs, the layoff was a chance to rest weary legs and lungs. For Kane, who returned early from a fractured clavicle, the time off was an opportunity to get in another week of healing without worrying about reinjuring himself.
But now each of the Blackhawks is rested and ready to measure himself against the best regular-season team in the conference, a team that finished seven points ahead of Chicago in the standings.
The Blackhawks are leery, but unafraid. They have been to this stage of the playoffs five times in the past seven years. They have claimed the Stanley Cup twice since Anaheim won its only Cup.
“They have some players that have won not only Stanley Cups, but Olympics, as well,” Kane said. “It seems like a team that knows how to win. You can see that in this playoffs too. I think they went into the third period down three or four times and have come back and won all those games.
“It's a dangerous team. By no means are they ever out of a game. I think we got to be aware of those situations throughout the game. Every shift is important. But there's little moments in a game I think you have to understand a little bit more than others.”