ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — The Chicago Blackhawks have built a tradition of excellence over the past seven years, winning two Stanley Cup titles and contending almost every spring with a dynamic roster of proven stars.
The Anaheim Ducks want everything that the Blackhawks already have, and they finally get a chance to take it in the Western Conference finals.
“You can’t give anyone too much respect,” said Anaheim forward Matt Beleskey, who has scored a goal in five straight playoff games. “They’re an obviously great team, but we’re here for a reason, and now it’s time to come out here and prove it.”
When the Blackhawks visit the Ducks for Sunday’s opener, two high-powered teams with contrasting strengths begin a compelling clash. These franchises have never met in the postseason, but it’s finally happening at arguably the peak of both teams’ powers.
While Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks played deep into the spring over the past several seasons, the players who now make up the Ducks watched and waited. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry won Anaheim’s only Stanley Cup title eight years ago, but they hadn’t been back to the conference finals since. Coach Bruce Boudreau and most of their teammates have only a few years of history in Anaheim.
The Blackhawks are in their fifth conference finals in seven seasons, and they’re playing this round in Southern California for the third straight year. Chicago split the last two conference finals with the Los Angeles Kings, with the winner rolling on to raise the Stanley Cup.
Don’t get fooled by geographical cliches when studying this series, though.
The Blackhawks might represent a blue-collar Midwest town, but they’re loaded with speedy skaters and elite scoring talent. The team from sunny, flashy Southern California is a hard-hitting behemoth with a nasty edge and outstanding two-way center play.
“I think it’s going to be a good series,” Chicago’s Patrick Kane said. “I think it’s going to be physical. I think it’s going to be fast. I think there’s going to be a lot of scoring chances, probably not what the coaches want, but I think it’ll be a good series for the fans to watch.”
Anaheim molded a roster to challenge the archrival Kings — another team of seriously heavy hitters — for Pacific Division supremacy, while the Blackhawks have stayed atop the league with top-end talent.
Nobody is willing to speculate on which team has an advantage in this style matchup.
“That’s why we play,” Beleskey said.
Here are some more things to watch when the series opens at Honda Center:
EXPERIENCE VS HUNGER
Chicago’s core is playing for its third Stanley Cup title in six years, while Anaheim has three players left from its only championship team: Getzlaf, Perry and defenseman Francois Beauchemin, who left and returned. The Blackhawks realize they’ve kept their window open for an abnormally long time, while the Ducks are back in championship range with a fresh roster of hungry talent. “A lot of things have to go right for you to have that kind of success,” Toews said. “The guys that have been around in the locker room understand that and don’t want to waste it.”
The Ducks paid a hefty price to acquire Ryan Kesler in a trade with Vancouver last summer, but the feisty center will play a huge role in the series. Kane’s U.S. Olympic teammate looms large in every aspect of the Ducks’ game, from lining up against Toews to taking big faceoffs. Kesler and Toews had several memorable tussles during Kesler’s career in Vancouver. “If I play against him in this series, I’m sure we won’t hug each other on the dot, let’s just say that,” Kesler said.
Corey Crawford has backstopped Chicago to a Stanley Cup, but he temporarily lost his job this spring to Scott Darling after two poor outings. Anaheim’s story in the crease is much more straightforward: Frederik Andersen, the 6-foot-4 Dane in his second NHL season, has been quietly solid all year long, fending off John Gibson’s challenge.
PLENTY OF REST
Fatigue and injury aren’t big factors as the series begins. The Ducks have played just 11 games over the previous 43 days, thanks to their 8-1 rampage through the first two rounds, while the Blackhawks are 8-2 in the playoffs after sweeping Minnesota. Anaheim also is healthy, while Chicago is playing without defenseman Michal Rozsival, who broke his left ankle.
ALL OF THE LIGHTS
Honda Center has the same ice inconsistencies faced by any warm-weather arena, but one of Chicago’s own might cause extra slushiness in the opener. Kanye West is headlining a large concert in the building Saturday night, and the players will take the ice for an early game roughly 12 hours after Yeezy steps off stage. Bad ice can cause problems for playmakers and defensemen who struggle to handle the skittering puck, but most NHL teams are used to it.
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