USATSI_8354015_154158418_lowresThe Anaheim Ducks find themselves in the third round of the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and they’ll be facing off against the Chicago Blackhawks, who will be appearing in their fifth Western Conference Final in seven seasons. The series should be a showdown between two stellar hockey clubs and the matchups look well-balanced.

Ryan Getzlaf and Jonathan Toews anchor their respective teams’ top lines, for starters, and they should make things interesting in terms of line-matching. Getzlaf has a dozen points in nine playoff games, while Toews has 11 points in 10 games. Corey Perry and Patrick Kane come up with more scoring punch. Perry leads all playoff scorers with 15 points in nine games, while Kane is second overall with 13 points in 10 games.

In other words, the teams are close when it comes to top-end talent – and that doesn’t even touch their defence or goaltending. Chicago took the regular season series, winning two out of three games against the Ducks, but anything can happen in the post-season. Look for this series to go the distance.

Offence

Kane and Toews have been exactly what the Blackhawks have needed them to be through two rounds and there’s no good reason to assume things will be different in the conference final. Kane’s got a point in seven straight games and had five goals in four games against the Minnesota Wild in the second round. Toews has made a serious dent, too, and Patrick Sharp has nine points for his efforts.

Right winger Marian Hossa has also come to life with eight points in 10 games. The foursome of Kane, Toews, Sharp, and Hossa are all inside the top 21 scorers in this year’s post-season and they form the offensive nucleus of the Blackhawks. While coach Joel Quenneville has been known for juggling lines, he seems to have found some semblance of normalcy and he might stick with the combinations that worked so well against the Wild.

Kris Versteeg was swapped with Teuvo Teravainen, which has situated the Finnish 20-year-old at the right wing slot and made it possible for Sharp to buckle back in at left wing with Antoine Vermette at the pivot spot. That formed a nice one-two punch for Chicago and should produce results against the Ducks. The line was also solid defensively, which is a plus.

Perry and Getzlaf have done for the Ducks what Kane and Toews have done for the Blackhawks. Anaheim has made great use of Patrick Maroon on the top line and the group’s been able to take over hockey games. Perry has been a beast of possession and control and they’ve been able to make the most out of their chances. Maroon has an impressive seven points in nine games with 18 shots on goal.

As impressive as the first line has been for the Ducks, it’s possible to argue that Ryan Kesler has been even more impressive and could well be a playoff MVP for the group. Kesler has controlled play and he’s been an excellent forechecker, plus he’s deadly in the dot and has nine points in nine games with just 15 shots on target. He’ll slip into familiar territory against Toews and will draw tough assignments, which suits him just fine.

Other than Perry, Kesler and Getzlaf, the Ducks still have nine forwards with at least a point. Scoring has been spread nicely over the lines and coach Bruce Boudreau likes to roll his combinations. He’ll push Matt Beleskey into the fray more often, especially after he proved his worth by scoring in five straight contests. Jakob Silfverberg has also put up multi-point games and their bottom six is impressive.

Defence

Quenneville had to roll out five defenders after Michal Roszival went down with a broken ankle in Game Four against Minnesota. The veteran blueliner made good on 17:26 of ice time in the playoffs, so his absence left a hole. Luckily, few teams can shoulder the load like Chicago. Duncan Keith is the name of the game. He plays more than half the game on any given night and will log the same against the Ducks while pulling tough assignments and putting up points. Guy’s a monster performer.

Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya round it out on the blueline. They’ll all log more minutes in the absence of Roszival and that should suit the Blackhawks just fine. They all average over 24 minutes a game and don’t seem any worse for it. In fact, they seem to get better the more they play and that could spell trouble for the Ducks.

The Ducks have gotten 29 points from their D thus far this post-season. That’s an interesting statistic when you consider how lacklustre things have been over the last several years. Anaheim hasn’t exactly been able to relive the glory days of their defensive groups of the past, but there isn’t a Scott Niedermayer waiting around every corner.

They have received quality play from Francois Beauchemin, who was on that Cup-winning squad from 2007 and is now good for tremendous leadership insight. He has six points in nine games and passed the aforementioned Niedermayer in playoff scoring. His partner, Hampus Lindholm, has been munching up the experience and the ice time. Cam Fowler and Simon Despres have formed another solid pair, with a plus-13 combined rating.

Goaltending

Hey look everyone, it’s Corey Crawford. The Blackhawks goalie has asserted himself as the man to beat in the crease for Chicago and that’s been a stabilizing influence for the club. Gone are the goaltending questions that plagued the team in the first round. He’s coming off a Game Three shutout against the Wild in the second round and has responded when adversity has come calling.

Frederik Andersen has established himself as the top guy in Anaheim. He’s taken over in a big way and he’s been capable in terms of making the big plays. A critical stop against Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau in Game Four solidified his ability and his tenacity. He has a 1.96 goals against average and a .925 save percentage thus far and he’ll certainly be tested against the Blackhawks.

That last statement matters, as Chicago has the potential to crack and test the Ducks like no other team has in the post-season so far. This comes down to opportunity, with both teams boasting stellar top-drawer scoring capacity and solid defence. This should be a series decided on mistakes. The team capable of capitalizing on their opponent’s errors will take the win.

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