Here we are, the Western Conference Final. It's been eight years, but at least we're back. The Ducks have a colossal opponent waiting for them. The Blackhawks are making their seemingly annual trip to Southern California to play for the trophy no one cares about, the Clarence Campbell bowl.
It's been an interesting tale of two penalty kills for Chicago. They were 10th in the league in PK% in the regular season, but they were third in both total penalties taken and Power Play Goals Against. Compare that against an abysmal 72.7% for the playoffs. They're middle of the pack for penalties taken, but were tied with Calgary for second to last in PPGA at nine. Only Montreal gave up more, with 12. To be fair, six of those goals came against Nashville. The Blackhawks only surrendered three PPG over their sweep of Minnesota.
Still, those were two of the five worst power plays in the regular season. The Duck PP has been incredibly efficient this postseason after regular season mediocrity. You can't expect the Chicago PK will continue to be this horrid, but it only needs to be bad enough against a streaking Anaheim PP to make this series go Anaheim's way. Chicago is tied for the league lead in shorthanded goals in these playoffs, with two. That almost matches their shorthanded output for the entire regular season of three. Of course, overlooking all the skill that Chicago deploys on the kill would be a HUGE mistake.
Chicago's forward deployment on the kill features two All-Stars, a rising star,and a Kruger. You probably don't need to be told about Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad. There's speed, talent, and phenomenal defensive awareness on that trio.
That leaves Marcus Kruger: The shutdown center of Chicago. The name might not turn heads, but he leads Chicago in SHTOI/GP. That's a right; after 10 games the top guy in PK minutes is a forward. He's logging 2:50 a night. I know it's small sample size, but that's still outstanding. He was the top forward during the regular season too. I've only been watching the PK video, so Kruger didn't really stand out. I suppose your 4th line center really shouldn't stand out. The man has to be doing something right, because the Chicago PK has had a lot of success over the course of the season.
The defenders on the PK are the defenders Chicago rides at even strength also. It's Keith, Hjalmarsson, Seabrook, and Oduya. You know what you're getting, and what you're getting is pretty good.
How They Do It:
When entering the zone the Ducks will see one of three formations, depending on where the Hawks pick up the entry and how they attack the blue line. If the Ducks are coming all the way from their zone and Chicago didn't have anyone pressuring up ice, expect one man to pressure the puck carrier, and three Hawks stacked on the blueline. If there's a forechecker coming back, the Ducks will face a wide triangle with one forward up and the two defenders positioned to pick up anyone coming along the boards or back up the forward if he gets beat by the puck carrier. Other than that, the Hawks will use a formation that looks a little like a parallelogram the two forwards are parallel and the two defenders are behind them, but closer to the boards. It seems like a formation that trusts the players to make the right decisions. They can converge and pressure. They can pass the puck carrier to the next layer and then pick up trailers.
When in the zone, the Blackhawks use a floating box. It's a little uncanny. The whole unit will shift almost in unison, as if the players are tied together. The puck goes to one half wall, and all four defenders will be on that side of the ice. Not quite overloading, but definitely ignoring the backside. It's almost like they are daring you to try and send the pass through the box. If you try to carry the puck down the boards, the defender will converge and you'll face two Blackhawks. When the puck goes down low and behind the net, the whole box comes down. It maximizes support, and tries to force guys into making bad decisions.
One curious thing is that they usually have one forward pressure the puck when it goes to the point and then across the blueline. It secures the center of the box and limits shooting options. One forward stays in the lane and the other either switches sides to continue zone coverage or drops down to form a triangle with the defenders and prevent the defender from slipping a pass into the center of the ice.
How to Beat It:
I recommend being lucky. Minnesota's first two PP goals were from Zach Parise slapping at a puck in the crease, and Matt Dumba taking a shot from the half-boards that beat Crawford short side. The third PP goal came with a two man advantage when Pominville deflected a point shot because there were too many players for the PK to cover everybody. But that's not the negative answer it seems to be.
The Ducks have enough talented power forwards and smooth skating defensemen that they should overload the crease. Park Corey Perry and Patrick Maroon in the crease. I mean IN THE CREASE. Each of them can also pull away and retrieve pucks that go behind the net when Chicago's pressure is too much for the guys maintaining the umbrella. After that, attack the crease any way you can. Point shot? Do it. Ryan Getzlaf from the half boards? Just get the puck on net. Don't let Crawford see anything! Perry and Maroon have the hands to get a couple of those through, or to distribute rebounds to each other.
The Blackhawks aren't the Flames. They won't surrender the quality chances. Luckily, we don't need them to. We need to take advantage of our net presence and not force the power play. Keep funneling pucks to the net; as long as we have power forwards to clean things up, we should be able to get the couple of power play goals we'll need to win the series.