CHICAGO — Atop the cart in the visitors’ dressing room sat a couple rows of cups, filled with variously colored sports drinks, complemented by a bowl of bananas chopped in half and two heaping mounds of orange slices. These were the very literal refreshments for the Anaheim Ducks, specifically intended to replenish what was lost in a granular 2–1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday night. They also were mostly untouched and apparently unnecessary. There was no shortage of vigor in a pivotal answer to a three-overtime, leg-deadening loss only two days prior, and this compels us to reassess just what these Ducks may be capable of, and who the better team in this Western Conference finals series is.
Playing the equivalent of two games and logging substantial air miles and recuperating far from the comforts of home did not keep Anaheim from reprising its usual concert of bumps and thuds at the United Center. There was no drag in its game unless it involved taking a Chicago body to the ice. This is how the Ducks have won, and this is how they will win in this series, and none of this is a surprise. The issue is the Blackhawks’ inability to exploit it. An abject failure to present anything resembling a functional power play allowed Anaheim to get away with anything and everything in Game 3, to pay no price for exacting a physical toll. And that’s the sort of attenuating bargain that will undermine everything, the conditions under which Chicago might just wear away into the summer.
The Ducks lead two games to one and seem to be playing on their terms. The Blackhawks seem to know it. There remains the question of whether they can do anything about it.
“If you make it hard on them, it wears on them mentally,” Anaheim defenseman Cam Fowler said. “It might force them to make a play before they want to, or it might cause them to hurry up with the puck when they might have a little bit more time. It’s something that, especially for our group, we need to continue. Because when we play physically, we’re at our best.”
Again, none of this is a revelation. Nor would it be stunning to witness a turbo-charged recovery from the Blackhawks, the club whose best is probably better than anyone else’s. But then the Ducks are eroding that argument with every hit, another 45 of which arrived on Thursday. Their two wins have been comprehensive in their own way—the 4–1 runaway in Game 1 and the flawed but pugnacious victory in Game 3—and they sandwich an epic outing that was one favorable bounce away from ending happily. Anaheim is that close to a 3-0 lead in the Western Conference finals, and though the game of hypotheticals is dangerous at this time of the year, Chicago cannot claim anything close to that sort of control so far.
Taken a bit farther: The Ducks haven’t lost in regulation this postseason. That might not have been impressive in the context of the Canadian roadkill they left behind in the first two rounds, but it is meaningful now, given the Chicago context. After Game 3, Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau hailed his team for a “character win.” It’s the sort of victory the Blackhawks typically muster, especially in the United Center’s din. They are expert at using impossibly high-level hockey to frustrate opponents, to corrode that character. Patrick Kane flicking a backhand shot toward a net he didn’t bother to look at, scoring an equalizing second-period goal on Thursday—that is a moment that can twist a team into exasperation.
The Ducks simply haven’t given permission for this to occur.
“The will on this team, I've said all year from day one, you could see it in training camp, you could see it in the preseason games,” Boudreau said. “You guys would talk to me and say there's a different aura about this group. We haven't won anything, but there is a resiliency that's as good as most.”
No, the Blackhawks have seen much worse than this en route to two Stanley Cups in five years. That shouldn’t relieve them from being worried now.
Chicago’s power play was ghastly on Thursday, all that talent mustering just one shot on goal—one!—across five empty chances. Though the Blackhawks notched two goals with the man advantage in Game 2, they are now seven for 38 overall during the playoffs. What’s more, their coach, Joel Quenneville, made gut-feel personnel changes that rarely occur after a postseason win but that also rarely fail him, excising rookie Teuvo Teravainen and Antoine Vermette in favor of Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom. The new lineup entries contributed two shots on goal. During a four-minute power play that produced nothing in the first period, an aggrieved fan in 300-level seats perhaps spoke for the legions around him.
“TERAVAINEN WOULD BE USEFUL,” he bellowed during a stoppage in play.
“It’s unfortunate we couldn’t convert tonight,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said more matter-of-factly. “It would’ve made the difference for us.”
A strange sensation percolated among the 22,160 in attendance on Thursday, for sure. The Blackhawks were without answers for the first time this postseason, without stars saving the day, without discernible momentum to suggest they were one mighty thrust from throwing the Ducks off their back. The better team has been on the other side. That certainly can change, and it is incumbent upon Anaheim to prevent that from happening, to keep heaving its bodies in the way and daring Chicago to do anything to stop it.
What happened on Thursday said plenty about the Ducks, who blew two 3-2 series leads during the past two postseasons but did not let history or a gutting three-overtime loss beat them down, at least not this once. That said a lot. What comes next can say it all.
“Our group learned a lot last year, I think, from that Game 7 loss (to the Kings) about putting teams away when you have chances,” captain Ryan Getzlaf said. “Those kinds of things that worked well for us in the first two rounds. We’re going to have to continue that against a great team.”