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Game 1 Preview: Best of the West

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The puck is about to drop on what may well be a series for the ages between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Anaheim Ducks.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

[Scheduling note:  Due to the early start time our post game coverage will be a little different.  We will have a short instant reaction recap  post, roughly an hour after the game, followed by Cory's twitter roundup after 9pm PT and our standard full recap late Sunday night. -CK]

A Brief History of How Two Successful Western Conference Franchises Have Avoided Each Other for Twenty-One Years:

When the Ducks first entered the league in 1993, the Chicago Blackhawks were a playoff team, but not a championship team. In 1997, the Ducks qualified for the postseason for the first time, but neither they nor the Hawks made it far enough to play each other. Between 1997 and 2009, the Hawks won exactly one playoff game in exactly one playoff appearance, which came in a year (2002) that saw the Ducks miss the playoffs. The Ducks qualified for five of the next six playoffs after that, including three trips to the Western Conference Final, while the Hawks focused on drafting and developing and not televising their home games.

Finally, in 2009, both teams had something going for them, and indeed almost met in the conference final but for an evil, evil goal by Daniel Cleary in the dying minutes of a second round Game Seven. In 2010, the Ducks missed the playoffs while the Hawks lifted the Cup. In 2011, both teams bowed out in the first round. In 2012, the Ducks missed again. And in 2013 and 2014, the Hawks played in the conference final after the Ducks were eliminated in the first two rounds. Now, in 2014, they will finally face each other. Once the puck officially drops this afternoon, the Blues will be the only team in the conference that the Ducks have not had the pleasure of playing (with the exception of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are no longer in the Western Conference).

What We Learned From Round Two:

We didn't learn a whole lot about the Ducks, who thoroughly outplayed a Calgary Flames team that everyone expected them to thoroughly outplay. Perhaps we learned that Frederik Andersen is capable of playing really well after the first round of the playoffs, or that Matt Beleskey can make a big difference when he gets hot, or that Jakob Silfverberg is a legitimate top-six forward, or that Cam Fowler and Simon Despres make a pretty damn good D pairing, or that when it looks like Corey Perry is injured, he might just be all right. But if we didn't know all of those things before, we could have probably guessed that they were going to be true sooner or later.

We did learn some things about the Flames, but that doesn't concern me anymore. What concerns me is what we learned about the Blackhawks, and specifically the guy they pay to stop the puck, who did exactly that 94.66% of the time against a Minnesota Wild team that nobody thought was going to get swept, even if nobody thought they were going to win. As much as people are talking about Patrick Kane these days (which is very much deserved), Corey Crawford might be just as big of a factor in this series.

What Needs to Change From Round Two:

Everything about the Ducks' game will need to improve as much as possible for no other reason than the fact that they are playing the most talented team in the NHL. Every player at every position will have to be sharp, but one area the Ducks need to put particular emphasis on is the bottom six forwards. Anaheim's third and fourth lines didn't look so great toward the end of the Calgary series, and aside from Andrew Cogliano, it's tough to pick a bottom six forward who has played really well. Remember, Patrick Sharp plays on the third line in Chicago. If the Ducks' third and fourth lines do not start playing better, they're going to be relying on Frederik Andersen more than they'd like.

On defense, the top two pairs will have to keep playing great hockey, and Boudreau might have to make a better effort to shelter the third pairing of Clayton Stoner and Sami Vatanen.

Game Notes:

Bruce Boudreau knows Chicago plays with a lot of speed, and for that reason he put together a new fourth line of Rickard Rakell, Jiri Sekac, and Emerson Etem in practice on Friday. Unfortunately, Rakell did not practice on Saturday due to illness, so if he remains out his spot will be taken by either Tomas Fleischmann or Chris Wagner. Regardless, there is a good chance Tim Jackman finds his way to the press box in Game 1, after playing just over three minutes in Game 5 versus Calgary.

The biggest question for the Hawks is what to do with the Michal Rozsival injury, and it appears Joel Quenneville will load up on his top four D while pairing David Rundblad with Kimmo Timonen. This strategy has worked for teams in the past — Kent Huskins and Joe Dipenta played eleven minutes a night together for the Ducks in the 2007 playoffs — but it's asking a lot of the other four guys. Maybe they can handle it, maybe they can't.

Since the Ducks have the last change, expect to see Ryan Kesler jump over the boards whenever Jonathan Toews is on the ice. Aside from special teams, the head-to-head matchup between the two best centers in the Western Conference will likely have to wait until Quenneville has the last change in Game Three.

Fearless Prediction:

Since the Hawks are 5-0 when leading after two periods and the Ducks are 4-0 when trailing after two, we may as well make this interesting. Chicago will hold the lead entering the third period.