(SportsNetwork.com) - For a third straight spring, the Chicago Blackhawks are in the Western Conference finals but this time they'll begin the battle for a Stanley Cup Finals berth on the road.
Chicago will take on the top-seeded Anaheim Ducks in Sunday's Game 1 from the Honda Center, as the clubs meet for an afternoon battle in Orange County.
The Central Division led the NHL with five of its teams making it to the playoffs. Now, only one remains and it should hardly come as a surprise that the Blackhawks are that team.
Chicago, which won Stanley Cups in 2010 and '13, is hoping to make it back to the Cup Finals for the second time in three years after getting eliminated in 2014 conference finals by Los Angeles. They made it to Round 3 in 2015 by dispatching two of their foes from the Central, eclipsing Nashville in six games during the first round before sweeping the Minnesota Wild in the conference semis.
Anaheim, meanwhile, is in the West finals for the first time since it won the franchise's lone Stanley Cup in 2007 and the current postseason run has gone a long way towards rehabbing Bruce Boudreau's reputation as a great head coach in the regular season and a bust in the playoffs.
By getting the Ducks this far, Boudreau has made it past the second round of the playoffs for the first time in his career. In his six previous postseasons -- the first four which came with Washington -- Boudreau's clubs bowed out in the first round three times and were eliminated in the conference semifinals in the three other trips.
In 2015, Boudreau not only made it further than he's ever been, but his Ducks also helped him reach a new playoff level in style. Anaheim is 8-1 through the first two rounds, sweeping Winnipeg in the conference quarterfinals before taking Calgary in five games. The stellar record has boosted Boudreau's lifetime postseason mark to 35-31.
Anaheim enters this West final against Chicago as slight underdogs and that's all because of the Blackhawks' recent championship pedigree. The Blackhawks still boast a very similar roster to the teams which won Cup titles in 2010 and '13. For the Ducks, other than the presence of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Francois Beauchemin, the franchise has had a ton of turnover in the eight years since claiming the Cup.
Getzlaf and Perry tied for the team lead in points during the run to a title in '07. Still, that team was mostly built around the stellar defensive pairing of Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger and the veteran presence of franchise icon Teemu Selanne up front. All three of those players are retired and Niedermayer has been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. In due time, Pronger and Selanne will join him in the Hall.
In 2015, Getzlaf and Perry are the grizzled veterans who make up two-thirds of Anaheim's potent first line. Getzlaf turned 30 years old on May 10 and Perry will hit the same age marker on May 16.
Getzlaf is a big, physical playmaking center who enters this series with 12 points on two goals and 10 assists, while Perry is leading all NHLers with 15 points on seven goals and eight helpers from his right wing spot. Patrick Maroon plays to the left of Getzlaf and has contributed four goals and three assists this postseason.
Ryan Kesler, an excellent two-way centerman, anchors the second line for the Ducks and is a big reason why Anaheim has made it to the conference finals for the first time since '07. Acquired in a trade with Vancouver last summer, the 30-year-old American has vastly improved his new team's depth down the middle and has four goals and five assists this spring.
"He's definitely got a big presence in the room," said Ducks winger and Kesler's linemate Matt Beleskey. "He's not vocal all the time, but when he is, guys are listening."
As a whole, Anaheim's offense has been the best in the league during the 2015 postseason, scoring an average of 3.89 goals per game and leading the NHL with a 31 percent power-play success rate (9-of-29).
The Ducks also have received solid offensive contributions from the back end, where five of Anaheim's six defensemen have pumped in at least five points.
Of course, Anaheim's overall team defense and young goaltender Frederik Andersen will receive its greatest test against the Blackhawks and their vaunted offense. The 25-year-old Andersen has shined in his second NHL postseason, posting a 1.96 goals against average and .925 save percentage while starting all nine games. He also has been a steady presence on the penalty kill, helping Anaheim allow just four power-play goals in 31 short- handed situations.
The best thing that happened for Chicago during the quick second-round series against the Wild was the resurgence of goaltender Corey Crawford, who regained his starting job from Scott Darling after struggling mightily in the opening round.
Crawford started the first two games against Nashville before Joel Quenneville switched to Darling as the starter for the remainder of the series. However, Darling was pulled after a rough start in Game 6 of the first round, and after Crawford stopped all 13 shots in Chicago's series-clinching win over the Predators, Quenneville opted to give the keys back to Crawford at the start of Round 2 and it proved to be a wise decision.
Crawford, who anchored Chicago's last Stanley Cup-winning season of 2013, stopped only 51-of-60 shots (.850 save percentage) in the opening round. In the Minnesota series, the 30-year-old posted a .947 save percentage, stopping 124 of the 131 shots sent his way by the Wild.
Through all the ups and downs this spring, Crawford's 2015 postseason numbers currently look pretty normal. He is sporting a 2.60 GAA and .916 save percentage through seven games, and seems to be trending upwards after his strong showing against Minnesota.
"He settled down," Quenneville said of Crawford's resurgence in these playoffs. "He came back in Game 6 against Nashville, the game's on the line, and he did what he had to do to get the win. He got some confidence off that, and he's been rock-solid in this series. We're very happy with how he's handled things."
Of course, Crawford always can count on his offense to make things a little easier for him. Chicago's tremendous scoring depth has been evident this postseason, as the club has scored 32 goals through 10 games and is clicking at 20 percent (5-of-25) on the power play.
As always, forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are leading the way for Chicago. Kane is pacing the club in both goals (7) and points (13) through 10 games and doesn't seem to be showing any signs of rust after sitting out the last 21 games of the regular season due to a shoulder injury.
Kane, the 2013 Conn Smythe Trophy winner, has been the picture of consistency throughout his postseason career. The 26-year-old American enters Round 3 with 104 points (44G, 60A) through 103 career playoff tilts.
Meanwhile, Toews is one of the best captains in the league and a finalist for this season's Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward. He has four goals and seven helpers this spring, giving him 33 goals and 92 points over 104 career playoff games.
Like Kane, Toews has won the coveted playoff MVP award, taking the Conn Smythe home when Chicago won its other recent Cup title in 2010.
Patrick Sharp also has added four goals and five assists during the 2015 playoff run, while fellow winger Marian Hossa has eight points on one goal and seven helpers. Emerging forward Brandon Saad has three goals this spring, but only one of those markers have come over his last six games.
In addition to the star players, Chicago boasts tremendous all-around depth up front. Additional forwards like Bryan Bickell, Brad Richards, Andrew Shaw and Antoine Vermette allow Quenneville to roll with four lines and give the opposing defense all it can handle.
While Crawford's rebound performance was the best news Chicago received in the second round, the loss of defenseman Michal Rozsival was the worst. Rozsival suffered a fractured left ankle in Game 4 against the Wild and will miss the rest of the playoffs.
Rozsival played in all 10 playoff games for Chicago and was logging the fifth- most minutes on the Blackhawks blue line. David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey are the two defensemen most likely to take over for Rozsival in this series. Rundblad played in 49 games during the regular season and is expected to get the call in Game 1 over Cumiskey, who played in only seven tilts.
The injury also likely means Quenneville will be forced to give even more minutes to his top-four group of Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya and Brent Seabrook.
Keith is the obvious star of the group and he is playing like one in this postseason. The two-time Norris Trophy winner has 10 points (2G, 8A) and also is sporting a plus-10 rating while averaging 30 minutes, 37 seconds of ice time per game.
Anaheim has bullied its way to this stage of the postseason, using its combination of size and skill to beat the opposition into submission. The Ducks boast a considerable size advantage over the Blackhawks, but Chicago is hoping to play fast enough to make it less of a factor.
With guys like Kane leading the charge, the Blackhawks have skating speed but they also pride themselves on being a smart team capable of making quick decisions. The formula worked against Anaheim during the regular season, as Chicago went 2-1-0 in the season series while outscoring the Ducks by a combined 8-3 margin. The Blackhawks also have won five of their last six regular-season tests against Anaheim.
This will be the first-ever postseason series between the Blackhawks and Ducks.
Anaheim did not do a good job containing Kane in 2014-15, allowing the crafty winger to put up four goals and one assists through the three encounters. Toews, meanwhile, only had one assist but he also played a big part in shutting down Getzlaf and Perry, who combined for only one point -- a Perry assist -- in the season series.
Chicago also could wind up having an advantage in net, where Crawford has seemed to put his earlier struggles behind him. Crawford, of course, has a vast experience edge over Andersen, who allowed seven goals on 70 shots in two games against Chicago this season and has a lofty 3.52 GAA in this matchup. Crawford was 2-0 with a 1.00 GAA in two meetings with the Ducks in 2014-15 and boasts a lifetime 1.88 GAA and .926 save percentage in his career against Anaheim.
Game 2 of this series is scheduled for Tuesday night in Anaheim.