Blackhawks have been at the top of their game

Blackhawks have been at the top of their game
Jonathan Toews, left, hoists the Stanley Cup after Chicago defeated Boston in Game 6 in 2013; Patrick Kane celebrates his game-winning goal in overtime as Chicago defeated Philadelphia to win the Stanley Cup in 2010. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

By now this has become familiar territory to the Chicago Blackhawks, who are about to make their fifth appearance in the Western Conference finals in seven seasons.

Despite the constraints of a salary-cap system designed to promote parity, the Blackhawks are as close to becoming a dynasty as seems possible in the NHL, a distinction the Kings might have earned if they hadn't missed the playoffs and lost the chance to defend their Stanley Cup championship.


As familiar a sight as the Blackhawks have become in the NHL's final four, their sustained excellence shouldn't be taken for granted. The team that will face the Ducks starting Sunday at Honda Center has adjusted to leaguewide trends toward speed over brawn, to injuries, and to NHL economics without losing its key players or key values. That's a significant achievement in this era — or any other.

"I think there's a lot of reasons, a lot of credit to be shared," winger Patrick Sharp said Saturday after the teams completed their final pre-series practices at Anaheim Ice. "We're glad to be back here in the conference finals. We don't take it for granted. We know how hard it is to get here."

Forced to part with a dozen players after their 2010 triumph, the Blackhawks retooled with youth and won again in 2013. They came within an overtime goal of reaching the Cup final last season but lost to the Kings in Game 7, a defeat that still drives them.

"Once you win one Stanley Cup, you know the feeling. You can't forget it. You want to get back there," center Jonathan Toews said in his best "Captain Serious" manner. "I think that's probably a huge reason why we've been fighting to get back there the last couple years, as well."

After squandering a 1-0 series lead over the Kings last season, the Blackhawks responded by becoming masters at holding leads. Including their playoff victories over Nashville and Minnesota, they're 30-0 when leading after two periods.

"We just kind of let off the gas pedal a little too much," Toews said of the team's past missteps. "This year I think we really learned how to play smart hockey, how to keep coming out with even better efforts if we're up a goal or two, especially late in games."

While the Blackhawks have become an outstanding close-out team, the Ducks have become an exceptional comeback team, recording 22 victories (including playoffs) in games they trailed at any point in the third period. "We have no secret weapon, we have no secret formula," Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "They're great at it. We're good at what we do. Hopefully it doesn't have to come to that at all. In a perfect world we want to play from above, from ahead."

That contrast aside, there are as many similarities between the teams as there are differences. And there are many connections, hockey being such a small world: Toews and defenseman Duncan Keith won Olympic gold medals for Canada alongside Ducks forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in 2010 and 2014, while Chicago winger Patrick Kane and Ducks center Ryan Kesler played for Team USA. In addition, Kesler and Toews have battled for years, going back to Kesler's time with the Vancouver Canucks.

And although Kane complimented Kesler by saying Kesler's two-way skills remind him a little of Toews, there's no love lost between Kesler and Toews.

"We always seem to match up against each other, so when you play in the playoffs and you play against the same guy six, seven games in a row, there's going to be a rivalry," Kesler said. "If I'm playing against him this series I'm sure we won't hug each other on the dot, let's just say that."

But there is admiration between Boudreau and Blackhawks Coach Joel Quenneville, teammates with minor league Moncton in 1978. "A couple years ago," Quenneville said, smiling.

Bad math, but a good friendship. "He's going to be in the Hall of Fame when he's done. He's done a great job," Boudreau said. "They could have easily won the Cup three years in a row, but they haven't. But he's a great coach. He's going to be tough to try to outwit. I don't know if I can do it, but we'll try."

It's not easy to stop a dynasty in the making, but the Ducks have the assets and determination to make it possible.


Twitter: @helenenothelen