Yes, they are in fact still playing. And the Western Conference Final at long last begins this afternoon in Orange County, where the Ducks look to advance to their first Cup final since 2007, and the the Hawks attempt to win their third Cup in six seasons.
For the top-seeded Ducks, even being in the conference final is something of an achievement in and of itself, considering that their coach Bruce Boudreau, who has the best winning percentage among active coaches and has been a top seed in either conference three times and has six division titles to his name, has never advanced this far. The Ducks didn’t exactly take on juggernauts to get here either, with a first round sweep against the punchline that has been Ondrej Pavalec, and a five game series win against a Calgary Flames team that was arguably the worst team to make the playoffs from a possession standpoint since the Great Lockout of Aught-Five.
That’s not to say that this Ducks team is lacking talent, because clearly that isn’t the case. As is their custom, their offensive production starts first and foremost with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, with St. Louis native and asshat Patrick Maroon now riding shotgun. The numbers speak for themselves, as Perry leads the playoffs in scoring despite having played the fewest number of team games for anyone in the conference final round. All three have a share of possession above 54%. They do so with a combination of size, skill, and ill-temperedness that really can’t be matched anywhere else in the league. Getzlaf in particular is incredibly strong on the puck and has fantastic hands and vision to match.
Behind that line of C.H.U.D.s is familiar face Ryan Kesler, who was brought to Anaheim last summer for this very reason. He’s remained healthy for the first time in years, which means he is producing and playing the two-way game with snarl that he always did in Vancouver. He and linemate Matt Beleskey are each shooting well over 20%, scoring a combined 9 goals on 37 shots so far. Beleskey in particular has a five game goal scoring streak coming into this afternoon, and yes, of course he’s looking at unrestricted free agency. Jakob Silvferberg provides speed and a laser of a wrist shot on Beleskey’s opposite wing, but he has been known to switch places on the third line with Kyle Palmeiri. That third line is anchored by former center Andrew Cogliano, who is as fast and aggressive as they come on the wing despite being undersized. Fourth line fixture Rickard Rakell may or may not play today due to illness, which would leave the entire unit up for grabs with some combination of Chris Wagner, Tomas Fleischmann, Emerson Etem, and Tim Jackman. All of those players have holes in their games in one way or another, but among them only Jackman (figures with the name) is completely useless.
On the Duck blue line, the top two pairings of Hampus Lindholm/Francois Beauchemin and Cam Fowler/Simon Depres have been for the most part interchangeable against the mediocre competition they’ve faced, so neither can truly be called a “top” pairing. Among them the elder statesmen is Beauchemin, who is also the most physical . Frenchie has always been solid, but is now beginning to feel the effects of playing such a heavy game for so long, and will be put to the test by the Hawks’ speed. The Ducks’ third pairing is the only unit that’s been underwater in possession, and boasts the complimentary parts of the shotgunny Sami Vatanen and the leadfooted redass Clayton Stoner.
This will all be in front of Frederik Andersen, who has been solid if untested for the Ducks. Andersen currently boasts a .925 save percentage so far in the playoffs, but has only been made to make more than 30 saves twice. One resulted in a shutout, the other in four goals against. Either way, he’ll probably work more this afternoon than he has in quite a while. He’s not quite as large as the last two goalies that the Hawks have faced at only 6’4″, 220 lbs, but he can still move very well laterally.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, the 10 day layoff finally comes to an end, and fortunately for them Joel Quenneville really hasn’t overthought anything given the extra time off. Sure, he’s toyed a little bit with mixing up the defensive pairings, but at last glance yesterday, they were back to their customary configuration in the post-season. This means that David Rundblad will be inserted in the spot that Michal Rozsival vacated when his ankle turned a way it’s not supposed to in the second period of Game 4 in Minnesota. Rundblad and Duncan Keith played well together in the regular season with a 58% share in 200 minutes together.Rundblad also brings more of an offensive upside with his bomb of a shot and passing vision, provided he has the 48 seconds to pull the trigger on either, which he almost assuredly will not under the heavy Duck forecheck.
Obviously Corey Crawford will remain in the Hawk net, where his strength down low will be put to the test against a cantankerous Ducks forward corps which has crease crashers the caliber of which the Hawks have not played yet this post season. Corey Perry in particular is exceedingly likely to pull some kind of garbage bullshit in or around Crawford’s personal space. The Hawk defensemen will need to clear any and all rebounds to the degree they did against Minnesota, because the Ducks will be there with ill intent ready for them
As has been beaten nearly to death over this long layoff, the biggest focal point of today will be seeing if Bruce Boudreau tries to chase any matchups against the Hawks having last change at home. He didn’t during two regular season home games. He didn’t during his last two home Game 7s against the Wings and Kings where Pavel Datsyuk and Anze Kopitar simply gnawed Getzlaf’s balls off, and he didn’t in either of the first two series because he didn’t have to. If Gabby figures out that he can get either Kesler or Getzlaf against Richards, Kane, and Bickell, the Hawks only unidirectional forward group that’s giving up a tremendous amount of size as well, then things could get interesting. But even in that event, any of the three Duck defensive pairings figure to have issues with the Hawks’ speed coming from all four lines, something they haven’t seen to this point in the post season. Either way it is paramount for the Hawks to stay out of the box, as their PK has been less than stellar to this point in the post season, and that is truly where the Ducks can punish them.
In the seven seasons of Quenneville, Toews, and Kane, the Hawks have taken on every comer the Western Conference has churned out except the Ducks. Now both finally have the opportunity with a chance to get to the Cup Final on the line. Both teams are well aware of the opportunity this series presents and are hell bent on not squandering it. The opportunity to finally atone for last year’s blown chance against the Kings in the Conference Final at long last begins today. It remains the only series the Hawks have lost with either home ice or winning game one. Take care of the latter this afternoon and begin to right last year’s wrong. Let’s go Hawks.