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Know Thy Enemy: Chicago Forward Preview

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Honda Center prepares to welcome its third visiting offensive unit of the postseason, and this one will very likely be a lot more dangerous than their Canadian predecessors.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Line Combinations

courtesy of dailyfaceoff.com

Brandon Saad - Jonathan Toews - Marian Hossa

Bryan Bickell - Brad Richards - Patrick Kane

Patrick Sharp - Antoine Vermette - Teuvo Teravainen

Andrew Desjardins - Marcus Kruger - Andrew Shaw

Injuries

None

How Did Their Season Go?

The 2014-15 season for the Chicago Blackhawks has been a rather unexpected one, to say the least. After signing Brad Richards to a one-year contract, many thought that Chicago was going to run away with the stacked Central Division en route to their third Stanley Cup in five years. The former scenario didn't go according to plan, as the Windy City representatives found themselves fighting to keep pace with the upstart Nashville Predators for the division's top spot. Their bid for a #1 seed took a major hit just after the midway point of the year when leading scorer Patrick Kane suffered an injury that required surgery and kept him off the ice for the remainder of the regular season. With Nashville and the St. Louis Blues above them, and the surging Minnesota Wild on their six, the Hawks were even in legitimate danger of slipping to a wild card spot during the home stretch. They held on to the Central's third spot, though, and finished the regular season short of many expectations.

Chicago's goals per game average was shockingly mediocre, finishing 17th in the NHL with 2.68 G/GP, but that number becomes much less underwhelming when you remember that Kane missed the last 20 games of the regular season, and the fact that at the time of his injury Kane was the leading scorer in the NHL. To the Hawks' credit, their gap in talent further down the roster isn't overwhelmingly spaced out. In other words, while most teams have a few go-to scorers (Getzlaf, Perry, Kesler), and a large drop-off between them and the next most productive guys, Chicago's lack that monster point disparity between any one player and the next one up or down from them, making their depth all the more effective. Captain Jonathan Toews led his team with 66 points (28 goals and 38 assists). Although he played considerably fewer games, Patrick Kane was right behind him with one fewer goal and assist.

How Has Their Playoff Run Gone?

Thanks in part to the unexpected early return of Kane, the Hawks have blown through the first two rounds almost as efficiently as the Ducks have. After having some early trouble with the Predators, Chicago took advantage of Shea Weber's early exit from the series and overcame some dicey play from their goaltenders to finally finish Nashville off in six games.

Round 2 against Minnesota, the team with the best record in the league from January on, led by a stalwart Devan Dubnyk, was thought by many to be a tough one for the Hawks. Instead, Chicago firmly reinforced their position as the Wild's personal executioners after dominating the series en route to a 4-0 victory, the third consecutive year that they have eliminated their divisional rivals from the playoffs. Patrick Kane lit the lamp five times in the sweep, and with the way his team has been looking lately, it's fair to say that the Blackhawks have gotten themselves back into playoff form after a shaky start.

Stats vs. Ducks

Games Played vs. ANA Goals Assists Points
Patrick Kane 3 4 1 5
Patrick Sharp 2 0 4 4
Brad Richards 3 1 2 3
Andrew Shaw 3 1 1 2
Kris Versteeg 2 0 2 2
Jonathan Toews 3 1 0 1
Daniel Carcillo 1 0 1 1


2015 Playoff Stats

Games Played Goals Assists Points
Patrick Kane 10 7 6 13
Jonathan Toews 10 4 7 11
Patrick Sharp 10 4 5 9
Marian Hossa 10 1 7 8
Andrew Shaw 10 1 4 5
Brad Richards 10 1 3 4
Bryan Bickell 10 0 4 4
Brandon Saad 10 3 0 3
Teuvo Teravainen 6 1 2 3
Antoine Vermette 8 1 1 2
Marcus Kruger
10 1 0 1
Andrew Desjardins 8 1 0 1
Kris Versteeg
6 1 0 1


Top Three Threats to Anaheim

1) Patrick Kane. After suffering a shoulder injury in February, Kane was supposed to be shelved until the beginning of this round. Not only did he return weeks earlier than expected for Game 1 against the Nashville Predators, but he never even missed a beat when returning to his goal-scoring ways. He has as many goals as Corey Perry in just one more playoff game, and his point total sits only two assists behind the Anaheim winger. Kane is currently on a goal streak slightly more impressive than Matt Beleskey's five-game bender; he scored a goal in every game during Chicago's second round sweep of the Minnesota Wild, and including his twine-tickler in the decisive Game 6 against Nashville, he has scored six goals in the last five games. He's on fire right now, and the fact that he has potted four more pucks in a three-game span against the Ducks this year doesn't ease any concerns. Keeping him quiet will be extremely difficult, yet extremely necessary.

2) Rested offense. The Hawks will be coming off a nine day rest period when the puck drops on Sunday afternoon in Orange County. They're recuperated, and every single one of their forwards are healthy. This isn't an advantage exclusive to Chicago; the Ducks are in great shape themselves, but it doesn't change the fact that battling Kane, Toews, and friends at their best isn't a fun task for any team to take on. Add the fact that the Hawk bench is arguably deeper than Anaheim's, and all of a sudden, you're staring down a group of 10-12 guys that require your 'A' game every night.

3) Experience. The Ducks have five players who have been this deep in the playoffs before: Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Francois Beauchemin when Anaheim hoisted the Cup in 2007, Ryan Kesler with the Vancouver Canucks in 2011, and Nate Thompson as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning in that same year. For the Blackhawks, however, this is not foreign territory to them at all. This is their fifth trip to the NHL's final four in the last seven years, and even though the roster has undergone changes in that period of time, they still carry 13 players who can call themselves Stanley Cup Champions. The lack of postseason experience was considered to be one of the biggest reasons why the Ducks were bounced from the playoffs in the last two seasons, and yet again, most players wearing an Anaheim jersey haven't played this deep into the season where the going really gets tough. The Blackhawks have. A lot.

Top Three Ways to Beat Chicago's Forwards

1) Send them to the penalty box. It's not like drawing penalties on the other team is ever a bad thing, but with how both teams' special teams have been looking throughout the playoffs, it could prove to be Chicago's undoing. Taking a player out of the potent Chicago offense for two minutes will, barring a stupid pass/shot, temporarily shake them off Anaheim's back. More importantly, though, the contrasting special teams that are iced in event of a Chicago penalty heavily favor one team in particular. The Ducks' power play has pulled a 180 from the regular season, and now boasts the best success rate of the postseason at a crazy 31%. The Blackhawks' penalty kill, on the other hand, hasn't had the best go in their ten game run. They've managed to neutralize only 72.7% of the calls that have gone against them in this tournament, and unfortunately for Chicago, the offensive firepower that they'll be fending off whenever one of their own gets sent off is much stronger than that of Nashville's or Minnesota's.

2) Play SoCal hockey. The Ducks have become a more offensively-gifted version of the Los Angeles Kings: a team that's not afraid to rough their opponents up while making use of quality puck possession. Anaheim currently sits at a 55.1% Fenwick For percentage, while the Hawks trail behind by a bit at 48.7%. Correlation might not necessarily imply causation here due to the difference in opposition, but the Ducks also happen to have a better shot differential as well, outgunning Winnipeg and Calgary by 7.2 shots per game. Chicago sits 4.2 shots per game in the red.

Slight side note for those who are a little confused, since we here at AC use this stat in literally every Gamethread: Fenwick measures a team or individual's shots on goal plus unblocked shot attempts that miss the net. The Fenwick For (FF) percentage can be found by this equation: FF / (FF+Fenwick Against). The higher the FF percentage, the more quality shots a team or individual is getting while, at the same time, suppressing their opponents'. Make sense?

The Kings used their system to their advantage to eliminate the Blackhawks in last year's Western Final in seven games. While the Ducks are not the Kings, their styles have still become more similar as of late, so hopefully Anaheim can make their version of play work against Chicago like their neighbors up north did last year. Since the two offenses are comparable in many respects, maintaining the advantage in puck possession is crucial. Whether the Ducks make it happen by knocking the Hawks off the puck, or Chicago takes control with strategic dispatching of their diverse lines remains to be seen. What we do know for sure, though, is that Chicago has yet to go up against a team that flexes their muscle quite like Anaheim does, and the Ducks will be squaring off against what is easily the most talented core group of forwards they've seen in the playoffs.

3) Maintain the two-way defensive play. The Duck blueliners have been getting some well-deserved attention for the offensive punch they've been bringing to the table. The 29 points from the Anaheim backend are tops among defense corps in the playoffs, but they've also been doing a great job stifling opposing attacks as well. Goalie Frederik Andersen has seen over 30 shots in only one game during this postseason, due considerably to his defenders succeeding at breaking up zone entries before the offense has time to get set and promptly moving the puck the other way. They'll face a much stiffer test throughout this series, but if the defense can keep up that versatility they've shown in the last two rounds, that might just prove to be a main X-factor if this matchup starts to come down to something like a Perry/Getzlaf vs. Kane/Toews firefight.