The Chicago Blackhawks head into Wednesday night’s Game 6 trying to make their way to Game 7 of the Western Conference finals for the second consecutive year. In order to win, though, Chicago will need to improve on their performances from earlier in the series and these five things will be key.
For the second straight season, the Chicago Blackhawks are heading into a must-win Game 6 in the Western Conference finals.
Unlike last season, however, they’re heading home and not desperately clawing back from a 3-1 series deficit, but the importance of Wednesday night’s game remains the same: win and the season continues, lose and get ready for a rocky off-season that could likely spell the end of this dominant Chicago team.
Through the first five games of the series, the Blackhawks have been hard to read. There have been moments where they looked every bit the unstoppable force that many believed them to be. Other times, Chicago has looked panicked and shaky in their own zone, left chasing Anaheim Ducks players around the defensive zone and hoping for a stoppage in play.
Heading into Game 6, the Blackhawks would be foolish to expect anything short of perfection to be enough to force a seventh and deciding game. As such, these are the five things Chicago needs to keep their Stanley Cup hopes alive:
5. Mistake free goaltending from Corey Crawford
It would be almost impossible to blame Crawford for any of the five goals he surrendered in Game 5, as they came off screened shots, a perfect passing play, incredible deflection and a difficult rebound, but the Blackhawks are going to need him to play his best game of the post-season.
Through the first five games of the series, Crawford has allowed at least two goals in each game and has surrendered four three times. That’s not making it easy on the Blackhawks offense, which has managed 14 goals through five games yet have only two victories.
Crawford played out of his mind in Game 3 of the Minnesota series. A similar performance could alone be enough to get Chicago through to Game 7 of the Western Conference final.
4. Don’t let any leads slip away
Five times in this post-season the Blackhawks have had a lead of at least two goals and blown it, including twice in one game against the Minnesota Wild. That’s not a way to consistently win hockey games and it has almost come back to bite Chicago twice in this series.
In Game 2 and Game 4, Chicago went up by two only to have the lead chipped away at and nullified by Anaheim. There was no blown lead more glaring than Game 4, when Chicago went up 3-1 only to allow a Ducks goal little more than a minute later which led to a run of three Anaheim goals in 37 seconds.
While you could say the same for Anaheim – Chicago was down 3-0 following the first period of Game 5 and needed overtime to get the 5-4 victory – it has been a glaring issue with the Blackhawks this post-season that when they get a lead, they’ve had difficulty protecting it.
If Chicago gets up early, they can’t allow Anaheim back into the game.
3. Exit the defensive zone cleaner
Go back through the first three rounds of play and watch the way Chicago exits the zone when under pressure and you’ll notice a pattern form: if the Blackhawks are pressured or don’t feel they have options, the puck is going up the boards.
This has led to countless opportunities for the opposition this post-season, including Ryan Kesler’s Game 5 goal that began when the puck was turned over going up the wall. And if Chicago isn’t throwing it up the boards, they’re attempting a long stretch pass that, thus far, the Ducks have completely shut down.
The Blackhawks need their forwards to start tracking back to the puck to get a fluid breakout going, because too often pucks are being turned over in the neutral zone and going back the other way quickly. Anaheim has dominated Chicago that way and if it happens often in Game 6, it mean the series is over.
2. Showtime for Patrick Kane
In Game 6 of the Western Conference final last season, with Chicago down 3-2 in the series to the Los Angeles Kings, Patrick Kane played one of the best games of his post-season career when it mattered most.
Early in the second period, he scored a power play goal to tie the game. In the third, he assisted on Duncan Keith’s game-tying goal. Then Kane scored the game-winner less than five minutes later. That’s the Patrick Kane the Blackahwks need Wednesday night.
Kane has made a habit of being one of the best big-game players in the league early in his career and he already has four career playoff overtime goals. Overall, he has nine game winners in 108 post-season games, including a Stanley Cup-winning tally.
If he wants to score another of those in his career, tonight may need to be the best game of Kane’s life. The Ducks are going to be careful defensively and try not to get burned by the Blackhawks, so space will come at a premium for Kane. When he gets his looks, he has to capitalize.
1. Depth forwards need to step up
Teuvo Teravainen was a healthy scratch in Game 3 and came back with a good game in Game 4 and two points in Game 5. Outside of Teravainen, though, almost all of Chicago’s production in the last two games has come out of their top-six forwards. While coach Joel Quenneville wants his top two lines to be producing, they can’t be the only ones.
Patrick Sharp, a four-time 30-goal scorer, hasn’t found the back of the net in the third round. Neither has Bryan Bickell, who makes $4 million in large part because he’s been a key playoff producer. Outside of a clutch overtime goal, Antoine Vermette hasn’t done much since becoming a Blackhawk.
The Ducks have made a concerted effort to shut down Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad, so it’s going to take some skill and creativity from others on the roster to make Game 7 a reality for the Blackhawks.