One of the most entertaining NHL playoff showdowns in recent memory would've lost a little something if the 2014-15 Western Conference Final between Chicago and Anaheim didn't end in the maximum-allotted seven games. Fortunately (unless you're a Ducks fan), hockey fans are in for one more treat Saturday night thanks to the Blackhawks' dominant 5-2 victory over Anaheim in Game 6 Wednesday.
You didn't have to be a Hawks supporter to hope this series was extended to a Game 7. If you're a fan of the game played with a mastery of craft at warp speed, you wanted one more game. If you got your kicks watching hockey played with an urgency matched only by someone transporting their pregnant wife to the delivery room, you wanted at least seven games, and were prepared to petition the league to create a one-time exception and make it a best-of-nine.
Certainly, it's understandable why Anaheim fans might be fighting off a little anxiety after the events at United Center Wednesday. The Ducks outshot 32-23 on the night – and they were also slightly better in the possession department – but Chicago bookended Anaheim's two goals with a flurry of high-pressure play that led to the visiting team's first regulation-time loss of the playoffs. And the damage was done with enough force and flair to expect the Hawks will continue to present an immense challenge to the Ducks' championship aspirations, even amid what is bound to be the chest-constricting pressure of Game 7 at Honda Center.
While it's true neither team scored in the first period and the visitors outshot the Blackhawks 10-6 through 20 minutes, it was Chicago who imposed its will in the second, scoring the first three goals of Game 6 before heading into the third frame holding a 3-1 advantage. Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith was a major influence in all three goals, assisting on each to give him 16 points in as many playoff games this year. Chicago also got a tremendous performance from right winger Andrew Shaw, who scored the final two goals of the evening (and his third and fourth of the playoffs) to put the game out of reach after Anaheim had closed to within one goal on Clayton Stoner's first goal of the post-season. And the Hawks dominated in the faceoff circle, winning 33 of 50 draws.
But make no mistake, on this night, Keith's star was brightest: he logged a game-best 28:35 and was on the ice for all situations. If the Hawks beat Anaheim and go on to win the Stanley Cup, the 31-year-old is making a strong argument to be named playoff MVP.
For the first time since their May 8 game against Calgary, Anaheim got no offensive production out of either Corey Perry or Ryan Getzlaf. In a sense, that's good news for Ducks fans, as they haven't both gone two consecutive games without at least one recording a point since back-to-back regular-season games March 28-29. If Hawks goalie Corey Crawford isn't focused Saturday, the Blackhawks may have to do a lot of scoring to avoid elimination.
But that's the scary thing about Chicago: they're entirely capable of doing that and putting up at least five goals in a Game 7. Superstar Patrick Kane scored the Hawks' third goal of Game 6 and now has three in his past four games. Greybeard Brad Richards has recorded a point in five of six games in this series. Veteran Marian Hossa scored his second of the Western Final and has a point in each of his past three games. Brandon Saad opened the scoring and has scored twice in the past three games. And although he didn't have a point Wednesday, captain Jonathan Toews amassed four points in his previous two games and always should be considered a threat.
So this is what Anaheim is up against, and at the risk of alarming their fans, it must be noted that potent Chicago offense will be aimed at Ducks goalie Frederik Andersen, whose save percentage has plummeted in each of the past three games (from .964 in Game 3 to .875 in Game 4 to .857 in Game 5 to .818 Wednesday). Plainly put, Andersen has been rattled by the Hawks, and if he can't steel himself for one more game there will be no more games for his team this season.
The Ducks have no paucity of talent, but neither do the Hawks. And the Hawks have a pedigree and resolve we'll need to see from Anaheim's youngsters in Game 7 before we can believe they'll beat Chicago.
But either way, people who don't have a horse in the race can simply sit back and appreciate another brilliant display of hockey played at its peak level. These guys live for this time of year, and it shows.