Game 1 of the Western Conference Final couldn’t have started off much better for the Chicago Blackhawks. The visitors turned in a near-perfect first period on Sunday afternoon at the Honda Center, outshooting the hosts 16-7 and controlling the flow of the contest until a broken defensive play created an opening for Hampus Lindholm. The Ducks defenseman beat Corey Crawford at 8:48 of the opening stanza and gave his team a lead it wouldn’t relinquish on the way to a 4–1 victory.
Game 2 of the series is Tuesday night in Anaheim (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA).
Here are three thoughts on the match:
1. Ducks’ depth plays the starring role.
When its big guns were silenced for the first time in these playoffs, Anaheim’s depth came to the forefront in Game 1. Nate Thompson’s fourth line was the team’s best on Sunday, using its speed and tenacity to generate turnovers and create scoring chances. The line ultimately cashed in on a pair of those, including a terrific effort that led to Kyle Palmieri’s game winner four minutes into the second period.
The Ducks also got another solid physical effort from their bottom D pair of Clayton Stoner and Simon Despres, a stark contrast to what Chicago got out of its third pair (more on that in a moment).
The game ultimately turned on a pair of back-to-back penalty kills that the Ducks executed early in the third period while protecting a slim 2–1 lead. First it was Despres to the box on a holding call at 3:04. Less than 30 seconds after he got free, Ryan Kesler was tagged for hooking Jonathan Toews. That was Chicago’s chance to capitalize on their near-total control of the game ... until the Ducks slammed the door shut with some textbook PK work. They managed to keep Chicago on its heels for the first 60-90 seconds of each infraction, and when the Hawks finally got something going late on each chance, goalie Frederik Andersen was there with the answer. And they got it done with Kesler, one of their best penalty killers, in the box.
After those frustrating failures, the fight was pretty much beaten out of Chicago. “[I think those] slowed us down in the momentum part of the game,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said in his postgame press conference. “Those two power plays, we didn’t generate much. I think that was probably the turning point, when we lost the momentum of the game.”
No telling yet how big a role ’s penalty kill will play in this series, but it should be feeling pretty good about itself after Game 1.
2. Andy provides the answers.
Sure he stood tall against the Jets and Flames, but the big question coming into this series was whether Andersen could raise his compete level to meet the challenge of a tougher, more experienced opponent like the Hawks. One game down, he sure looks like he’s up to it.
Break down his 32 saves on the afternoon and there were a few beauties, including a sprawling save of a Brandon Saad rebound attempt just moments after Brad Richards teed one up under no duress from Anaheim’s defense. At that point of the third period the game was 2–1 and still within Chicago’s grasp before Andersen snatched it away.
But that stop was nothing compared to the 10-bell dsave Andersen delivered early in the first when he broke Patrick Kane’s heart with a desperation stick save. Is it a different game if that wide-open chance finds the back of the net? Absolutely. The Hawks were in complete control in the first, outshooting Anaheim 16-7, and hadn’t trailed since Game 6 of the Nashville series. If they grab the lead there, it’s Katy, bar the door.
No one should read too much into one game but then maybe this isn’t just a one-game thing. Andersen now has allowed two goals or fewer in eight of 10 contests this postseason. Sunday, as in those other games, he was well into the zone, staying on his feet and executing his angles. It was a calm, poised performance, the sort that gives the Ducks reason to believe they can win on any given night. And with the benefit of generous offensive support—the Ducks have scored at least four goals in six of their games—they look like they pretty much can.
3. Blackhawks have a blue line conundrum.
Take a deep breath, Chicago. Losing the opener wasn’t a lot of fun but it’s not exactly a sign of the impending demise of the Blackhawks, either. The visitors dominated long stretches of play, particularly in the first and second periods, only to be thwarted by the exceptional play of Andersen. It happens. Keep coming at the Ducks like that in Game 2 and their chances of evening up the series are pretty good.
That said, there is one area of real concern, though: the fifth and sixth defensemen. Quenneville clearly doesn't trust Kimmo Timonen, giving him barely five minutes of ice time in Game 1. The veteran skated just two shifts in the third period, one of those lasting all of eight seconds. That may be an eternity in bull riding, but not so much in hockey.
David Rundblad may have broken a sweat during his 10 minutes on the ice, but it wasn’t the exertion that got to him. It was having to go back to the bench and face Quenneville after his mistakes led directly to Anaheim’s first two goals.
For all the criticism that (justifiably) was directed at Michal Rozsival, he could handle a decent workload of 17-plus minutes. Now that he’s out for the season with an ankle injury, it looks like Quenneville is determined to divvy up his time among the top-four D. That might have worked earlier in the playoffs, but up against deeper, heavier teams, well, you can see where it might be a problem.
If you watched this one, you saw ’s forecheckers pounding Chicago’s blueliners, and that’ll be their goal in every game moving forward. At some point, that combination of punishment and overwork has to take a toll.