Ducks-Hawks has makings of classic seven-game series
As has been the billing for the past handful of post-seasons, the fear for powerhouses from the Western Conference has been the toll it takes just to make the Stanley Cup final, never mind winning it all.
The Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks are here to tell you otherwise — until Sunday afternoon in Southern California, at least.
After breezing through the first two rounds of this year’s tournament — the Hawks going 8-2, the Ducks 8-1 — the two are set to square off in what has all the makings of a classic seven-game series.
The Ducks, three-time Pacific Division champions and Western Conference regular-season champs, did their part in gutting the Can-con element of these playoffs, sweeping the Winnipeg Jets in four and swatting aside the Calgary Flames in five games.
It’s just their first trip to the conference final since winning the Cup in 2007 and a huge step forward for their coach, Bruce Boudreau, who could never get Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals to the NHL’s final four.
Good for them and all, but the reward is a date with the Blackhawks who, along with the Los Angeles Kings are the closest thing the league has seen to a dynasty in the salary cap era.
The matchup in the East is a good one as well, of course, with the New York Rangers making it to the conference championship series for the second consecutive year against a Tampa Bay Lightning team poised for greatness. But the Western winners have captured four of the past five Cups, including victories by the Hawks in 2010 and ’13.
And when the puck drops in Anaheim at 3 p.m., Eastern time on Sunday, Chicago will begin its fifth Western Conference final appearance in the past seven years.
“We’re dealing with a team that knows how to win in the playoffs,” Boudreau said earlier this week as he anticipates his first trip past the second round. “They know how to play and they have the experience to back it up.
“We know all about their reputation and everything, but we’re focussed on how good we can be.”
In any event, both teams are rested and relatively healthy, the lower-body injury to Ducks star Corey Perry the only significant potential exception. Dominance through the first two rounds has afforded the opportunity for both teams to be well-rested, perhaps too much so.
Thanks to the fidgety NHL schedule-makers and arena availability at the Honda Center this weekend, when play finally begins, the Hawks will have been off 10 days, the Ducks six.
“It’s been a long time, a long week,” Hawks forward Patrick Sharp told reporters in Chicago this week, prior to the team flying to California on Friday. “You take your rest when you can get it, but we’re to the point where we’re trying to simulate game situations and get the body feeling like we can play a game.”
Despite their recent success, the Hawks are lamenting what they feel to be unfinished business. The Game 7 overtime loss to Los Angeles in last year’s West final still stings, especially after the Kings easily rolled to the title over the Rangers.
“What we left out there was something that was very disappointing and so close,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said of his team, which is the slight favourite according to Vegas odds. “It made for a long summer. That’s something that didn’t sit very well with us.
“You want to win the Cup every year and we have an opportunity to win it. You never know how good it’s going to be the next time.”
The unfinished business on the Ducks part is a different strain. Blessed with having the superstar duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Perry, they’ve also been cursed with being stuck in the wicked West where they have been bounced early in the playoffs while the Kings and Hawks captured two Cups apiece this decade.
The Ducks will attempt not to worry about any of that as they prepare for their first ever playoff meeting with the Original Six opponent and focus instead on building off a solid start to their spring.
“Each team is unique and (the Blackhawks) bring challenges that maybe the last couple of teams didn’t,” Ducks defenceman Cam Fowler told reporters in Anaheim this week. “That’s what we’re trying to prepare for.
“But you can only watch so much video on another team. You have to worry about yourself.”
PERRY WILL BE READY TO GO
The first question heading into the Western Conference final appears to have been answered: The leading scorer these playoffs appears to be a go for Sunday’s opener.
Anaheim winger Corey Perry was a full participant in the team’s practice on Friday and afterwards pronounced himself recovered from a lower-body injury sustained in Game 5 of the Ducks series against Calgary.
“I’m excited and everything went well,” Perry said following the 50-minute practice in advance of Game 1 of the best-of-seven series vs. the Chicago Blackhawks. “It was great to get on the ice again.
“We’re moving on and I’ll be ready. Every day is getting better.”
It didn’t look so good when Perry collided with the Flames Matt Stajan, but the time off between series apparently has helped his recuperation. Perry leads all post season scorers with 15 points (seven goals, eight assists), two more than the Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane.
Who do you think will win the Western Conference final?