With Game 7 of the Western Conference finals coming up on Saturday night (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA), here’s a look at three keys to victory for both the Anaheim Ducks and the Chicago Blackhawks:
1. Minimize Duncan Keith.
Easier said than done, right? The indefatigable defender has thrived despite heavy physical pressure throughout the series, making the big plays you notice—pulling Corey Perry’s potential equalizer off the goal line in Game 6—along with too many little ones that get taken for granted.
“We’ve seen it in previous years in the playoffs, games like [this game] where it's must-win,” Chicago’s Jonathan Toews said of Keith. “You can definitely count on him stepping up and being one of our best players, if not our best player. He’s all over the rink. Seems like he never runs out of energy.”
It’s a safe bet that Keith will make his presence felt again in Game 7. The key for Anaheim then is limiting his impact to the defensive zone.
Keith carved up the Ducks with his precision passing in Game 6, making the critical plays that created each of Chicago’s first three goals in its series-extending 5–2 win. It was a display that highlighted his remarkable ability to execute with minimal time and space. And it served as a reminder that the smart play is to focus not on him, but on his intended target. Tight defensive coverage on his receivers, especially in the middle of the ice, could make the difference.
2. Get something out of Ryan Getzlaf.
“I was terrible,” Anaheim’s captain said after Game 6. “I’ve got to be better on the ice. It doesn’t matter what I say if I go out there and play like that. That’s on me, to be ready to play and make better plays with the puck.”
Getzlaf might have been too kind in his self-assessment. He was an empty sweater in the potential close-out game, putting up zero points and a –3 rating while going a miserable 27% in the face-off circle.
He wasn’t alone in his struggles. Ryan Kesler and Corey Perry, two other players who are expected to step up in big games melted into the backdrop as well. But Getzlaf has more than the C on his chest to deal with. He has the weight of past failures on his back. Last spring, in blowing a similar 3-2 series lead to the Kings, he put up one assist, another –3 and was beaten on more than 70% of his draws. Two years ago against Detroit, it was the same story.
Getzlaf has been part of winning teams before, but always in a support role. He needs to prove that he can be an important player when the spotlight is shining directly on him.
3. Seize the moment.
“I think we were too tentative last night,” Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said on Thursday. “We were waiting for something to happen. What makes you play at your best is when you know you haven’t played well and you know you’re capable of doing much more.
“We maybe [let] something slip away.”
That’s a solid assessment. Anaheim had its share of moments in the early going but never seemed entirely up to the challenge of eliminating the Hawks. The desperation and commitment that should have been obvious in puck battles won and drives to the net weren’t there. Boudreau says his team got “out-willed and out-wanted” by Chicago and that seems pretty accurate. Finding the intensity out of the gate and flipping that narrative is critical to the Anaheim’s chances.
THE NHL'S GREAT GAME 7s
1. Control the second period.
The middle frame was a problem for the Ducks all season long. Anaheim allowed 97 goals in the second period during the regular season, more than any other team, and its –23 goal differential ranked 28th in the league. That sudden malaise has manifested itself again in the past two games as the Hawks outscored Anaheim by a margin of 5-1 in the second periods of Games 5 and 6. It’s more than just the long line change that’s messing with the Ducks. There’s a flagging intensity that seems to leave them vulnerable to an opportunistic attack. If that door opens even slightly on Saturday night, the Hawks need to barge through it.
2. Use their mental edge.
Sure, the Ducks have been pounding them physically throughout the series, hammering the Hawks to the tune of nearly 100 extra hits through the first six games. But if Chicago has a clear edge, it’s in their mentality. This is a team that has been in this exact situation many times during the past few years. More often than not, the Hawks have come out on top in the battle of wills.
“I credit the guys. Their focus, their preparation, their will to win, finding ways to win,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “They love the journey. They’re competitive beyond what you could want it to be.”
That focus will be under fire early as the Ducks are expected to come out hard at home. Good decisions, especially under physical pressure, will be a sign that this team is on its way to a win.
3. Get a big game from big players.
The Hawks roared to victory in Game 6 on the backs of their three top stars: Keith, Toews and Patrick Kane. Each of those players has a history of rising to the occasion when his team needs him most, but none more-so than Kane. Since 2009, the flashy winger has scored 17 points in elimination games, fourth most during that time frame. He padded that total with a goal and an assist in Wednesday’s must-win contest.
Don’t be surprised to see Quenneville skate Kane with Toews in Game 7, at least occasionally. He slotted them together in the first period of Game 6 and while he didn’t stick with that pairing throughout the contest he went went back to it just often enough to throw the Ducks defense off balance. This duo doesn’t always click, but there’s usually magic when it gets down to the marrow. Expect them to take a big bite out of this game.