When the Los Angeles Kings were officially eliminated from contention for the Stanley Cup playoffs on April 9th, the two teams that stood to benefit the most are the two who are currently going head to head in the Western Conference Final.
Last season, both the Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks looked to have what it took to become the 2014 Stanley Cup champions. That is, until both shared the same fate of being bounced from the playoffs in a Game 7 scenario against the heartless, cruel, playoff hockey machine known as the Los Angeles Kings.
But this year, both teams were fortunate enough to see their nemesis fall short of the playoffs entirely, and with the Kings’ three year streak of Western Conference Final appearances snapped by default, it wasn’t too hard to predict this exact matchup in 2015’s edition of the series. For the Blackhawks, the Kings missing the playoffs seemed to be exactly what the group needed to find their way back to the Stanley Cup Final.
Be Careful What You Wish For
Try to remember the last time the Blackhawks had legitimate reason to be afraid of a playoff opponent that wasn’t the Los Angeles Kings. Go ahead, I’ll wait, but the last three years have shown that outside of the Kings, there’s not a legitimate threat to the Blackhawks’ Western Conference supremacy when it comes to the postseason.
Maybe the Blues sprang to your mind. They have outperformed the Blackhawks in two consecutive regular seasons, after all. It was just last year’s playoffs, however, where after two fortunate overtime victories, the Blues were defeated by Chicago four straight times en route to another disappointing first round exit.
What about the Wild team that dispatched the Blues this time around? Please. The two have now met in three consecutive playoffs, and the Blackhawks record against the Wild in those three series is an astoundingly dominant 12-3.
The Blackhawks’ playoff series since 2013 go like this: Def. Wild in 5, Def. Red Wings in 7, Def. Kings in 5, Def. Bruins in 6, Def. Blues in 6, Def. Wild in 6, Def. By Kings in 7, Def. Predators in 6, Def. Wild in 4.
So outside of Los Angeles, the only team to give the Blackhawks any semblance of trouble in a playoff series is the Detroit Red Wings, who are now members of the Eastern Conference. So it would seem that the Kings missing the playoffs would all but guarantee a clean route for Chicago to the Western Conference crown and a third berth in the Stanley Cup Final in the last six years…
Not So Fast.
Over the last two seasons, the Anaheim Ducks have turned into somewhat of a postseason punchline. Despite two consecutive excellent regular seasons, the Ducks were knocked out by Detroit in 2013’s first round and undone by the dreaded Kings in 2014’s second round. Bruce Boudreau’s reputation as a regular season winner and postseason under-performer has followed him all the way from Washington to Anaheim. This year though, things have been different.
It all starts with the acquisition of Ryan Kesler from Vancouver. The last two teams to send the Blackhawks packing from the playoffs are not around this year (with the Coyotes having fallen far from their 2012 status). Before them, it was the Vancouver Canucks in 2011. The Canucks aren’t around this year either thanks to the Calgary Flames, and even if they were, they are nowhere near the team they were back then. Part of the reason for that is that Ryan Kesler is now an Anaheim Duck.
Ryan Kesler is one of the few players in this league who knows a thing or two about beating Chicago in the playoffs, but Anaheim’s transformation doesn’t stop there. They may have had to move on from the Ryan-Getzlaf-Perry line when they sent Bobby Ryan to Ottawa, but this is a deeper Anaheim team than we’ve seen in a very long time. Matt Beleskey and Patrick Maroon are perfect fits in black and orange, the type of players that are solid in their own right but complement superstars like Getzlaf and Perry excellently. Andrew Cogliano is finally getting recognized as the excellent middle six role player that he is.
The Ducks have an absurdly balanced defense both in terms of quality of players and ice time distribution. Kyle Palmieri, Emerson Etem, and Jiri Sekac provide an offensive spark from the bottom six. Frederik Andersen is probably the most underrated goaltender in the league, but if he continues his postseason play, that will not be the case for much longer at all.
Swedish 24 year old winger Jakub Silfverberg has exploded this postseason with 13 points in 10 games. Oh yeah, did I mention that the Ducks have a 1-0 lead in the Western Conference Final and they’ve only needed ten games to get to that point? Does that level of efficiency in a playoff run remind you of a certain 2012 Stanley Cup champion from Southern California? Because it should.
But Again, Not So Fast…
As easy as it is to like this Anaheim team’s chances to capture the Stanley Cup this year, they’ve still got a lot of work to do. The Chicago Blackhawks are the Chicago Blackhawks for a reason. They haven’t made the Western Conference Final in five of the last seven years by accident. They’ve been down in a series before and come back and won four straight like it was no big deal. Ask St. Louis.
The main point is that for once, we’re not entirely sure that the Blackhawks are going to win a series that is against not-the-LA-Kings. It’s refreshing to see new blood like Anaheim and Tampa Bay in the conference finals, and it’s even nicer knowing that they are legitimate options to knock off Chicago and New York.
Previously, I predicted that the Blackhawks take this series in seven, and I’m standing by that. Regardless, it’s refreshing to watch the Blackhawks play a playoff series and honestly be able to say that I have no clue what is going to happen. I can’t wait to watch this series continue to unfold, and both of these two hockey clubs are worthy to compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup in the next round.
As for tonight’s Game 2, I think it’s huge in determining who goes on to win this series. An Anaheim win means that they’ll have held on to home ice advantage and that the Blackhawks will have to win four out of the next five games to move on. It’s difficult to imagine the Ducks relinquishing four out of five if they’re coming off winning 10 out of 11. On the other hand, if the Blackhawks emerge victorious tonight and force a split, it’s hard not to like their chances in a best of five with home ice advantage. Both teams are well aware of this, and they’re sure to come out desperate tonight in what should be a highly exciting tilt.