Goalies take center stage in Western Conference finals
CHICAGO (AP) The top four defensemen for the Chicago Blackhawks carried a heavy load in the first two games of the Western Conference finals. A couple of Chicago's biggest stars were shut out in Anaheim, and the Ducks' fourth line caused a bunch of problems for the Blackhawks.
At least Chicago doesn't have to worry about its goalie right now.
A month after Corey Crawford was pulled from Game 1 of the Blackhawks' first-round playoff series against Nashville, it looks as if the veteran is one of their biggest assets heading into Game 3 against Anaheim on Thursday night. For all the pre-series talk about the offensive stars, an opening split in Southern California belonged to Crawford and Ducks goalie Frederik Andersen.
''Both goalies are playing really well,'' Chicago center Brad Richards said Wednesday. ''Big goalies that seem to fight through traffic really well. You know, when they see it, it's going to hit them most of the time.''
That was never more evident than Tuesday night, when the Ducks and Blackhawks faced off in a triple-overtime classic that could have a dramatic effect on the rest of the series. Crawford made 60 saves and Andersen finished with 53 stops, but Marcus Kruger's sixth goal in his 65th career playoff game lifted the Blackhawks to a 3-2 victory.
Now the series shifts to Chicago for the next two games, where the Blackhawks are 5-0 in the playoffs. But their top four defensemen played a ton of minutes in Anaheim, and it remains to be seen if they can keep it up against the physical Ducks.
''Our game plan is to get the puck in deep and forecheck their D men, finish our checks, play down low,'' Anaheim defenseman Francois Beauchemin said. ''You know, they're in good physical shape. Obviously they've been playing most of the year with four or five defensemen. They're used to it. We just got to make sure we keep that puck down low and focus on our offense.''
The big question for the Ducks is their response to their first home loss of the playoffs, especially going into a notoriously difficult place to play.
''We've done it all year. I would be more surprised if we weren't able to rebound and play a really great game than if it went the other way around,'' Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said. ''I've been with this group for a long time now. You can see it. They were, rightfully so, very angry last night. Not disappointed, but angry. That's a good thing.''
Each side had numerous chances in the overtimes before Kruger's winning goal. Crawford, who helped Chicago win the Stanley Cup in 2013, made 28 stops in the extra periods.
''Crow did what he's done all playoffs for us, let us hang in there long enough so we could get one bounce,'' captain Jonathan Toews said.
But Crawford's play was hardly a given for the Blackhawks after he gave up three goals on just 12 shots in the playoff opener at Nashville on April 15. After another lackluster effort in Game 2 against the Predators, coach Joel Quenneville went with Scott Darling in net before returning to Crawford in relief in the deciding Game 6.
Crawford helped the Blackhawks get into the second round, and then played a key role in a surprising sweep of the Wild. Now he is coming off one of the best games of his career.
''He had several key saves, a lot of traffic around him as well,'' Quenneville said. ''He was fine in Game 1, as well. Their goalie has been pretty solid throughout the playoffs. But you could talk about some highlights in the game. I think the goaltenders stole the show.''
Andersen was a rookie starter heading into last season's playoffs, but got hurt and lost the job to Jonas Hiller and John Gibson in the second round. It has been smooth sailing so far in this year's playoffs, with Andersen allowing just 22 goals in a 9-2 start.
''I thought he was excellent,'' teammate Patrick Maroon said, praising Andersen's performance in Game 2. ''That's not his fault. Throw pucks at the net, it hits off the guy, there's nothing he can do.''
AP Hockey Writer Greg Beacham in Anaheim, California, contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap