ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Here is one thing you never heard in the days leading up the Western Conference finals: You can only hope to contain Ducks center Nate Thompson so long.
In the hours after the Anaheim Ducks' 4-1 victory over the favored Blackhawks in Game 1 of the conference finals, there were two undeniable truths: The Ducks' third line of Thompson, Andrew Cogliano and Kyle Palmieri -- a trio that had combined for three goals in the first nine games of the playoffs -- saved the Ducks’ bacon, scoring twice, including the game winner, and dominating play on a day when Anaheim's superstars were muted.
And second, that there was any bacon left to be saved was a surprise given the sometimes-breathtaking performance turned in by Andersen, who calmly stopped 32 of 33 shots as the Ducks ran their home record in the playoffs to 6-0 and 9-1 overall.
Despite their impressive record while sweeping the Winnipeg Jets and dispatching the Calgary Flames in five games, there was -- again -- much skepticism about whether the Ducks were (a) for real and (b) ready to play with the big boys from Chicago, who are visiting the conference finals for the fifth time since 2009.
And while a series' identity is never truly revealed in the first game, the picture that began to come into focus Sunday afternoon in Anaheim is that these Ducks are indeed good enough to get away with being sloppy -- as sloppy as we've seen them in the playoffs -- and they can get away without the big guns firing and still beat a darned good hockey team.
“I thought we were a little sloppy in our own end and in the neutral zone a little bit in the first period,” said Thompson, who was a man on a mission with a goal and an assist. "But you’ve got to give them credit, they were coming hard, they were coming fast. They’re the Chicago Blackhawks for a reason. They can skate, they can make plays. They’re a good hockey team."
Indeed, through the early part of Game 1, the Ducks were a turnover machine.
Perhaps it was a function of nerves, facing a team that has two Stanley Cup championships under its belt since 2010 and had a chance to win back-to-back titles last spring before it was knocked off in Game 7 at home, in overtime, by the Los Angeles Kings in the conference finals.
One turnover by captain Ryan Getzlaf in the first period left Chicago’s leading scorer, Patrick Kane, with a glorious chance, but Andersen somehow got the paddle of his stick on a Kane shot that seemed destined for the upper part of the net and deflected it out of play.
"He picked up a loose puck and I didn’t really see how much time he had in the beginning,” Andersen explained afterward. "I played aggressive, but he was patient and tried to get me moving laterally. I knew I had to throw my stick over and take away as much of the net as I could. Luckily, he hit the stick."
It wasn't long after that the Ducks took a lead they would not relinquish when Hampus Lindholm ripped home a hard one-time snap shot.
Such are the moments on which games turn.
By the end of the first period, the Blackhawks had launched 16 shots on goal to just seven for the Ducks but still trailed 1-0. It marked the first time since Game 6 of the opening round against the Nashville Predators that the Blackhawks trailed in a game.
“Yeah, I thought we had a real good start to the game, but being down 1-0 after one was a tough spot to be in," Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said. "Hadn’t been behind in the last four games."
The Blackhawks had another chance to seize the moment, to turn the tide in a game in which they were the better of the two teams for long stretches, late in the second period.
Palmieri had given the Ducks a 2-0 lead early in the second period, netting his first of the playoffs off a rebound. But in the final minute of the middle frame, veteran defenseman Francois Beauchemin coughed up the puck to former Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards, who raced in from the right and beat Andersen high to make it a one-goal game with 39.6 seconds left in the second.
Felt like it might be.
Especially when the Ducks gave the Blackhawks back-to-back power plays in the first eight minutes of the third.
But the Ducks held firm and it was again the rambunctious trio of Thompson, Palmieri and Cogliano that salted the victory away with the Ducks’ third goal with 7:55 left in the third.
"A lot of people look at a goal in the last minute of a period and it’s a huge momentum shifter, but we came back into this room very confident and went out and did the job in the third," Palmieri said.
By winning Game 1, the Ducks answered important questions about how they measure up against an elite, battle-tested team like the Blackhawks.
Their goaltending turned out to be top-notch against a team that had previously worn down two Vezina Trophy finalists in Pekka Rinne and Devan Dubnyk in the first two rounds. And the Ducks’ depth proved to be decisive.
On a night when Getzlaf and Corey Perry seemed out of sorts, prompting speculation that Perry is not quite right after his brush with a serious knee injury in Game 5 against the Flames, the Ducks found a way.
“Obviously [the Thompson line] scored two huge goals for us,” said Jakob Silfverberg, who continued his strong playoff with an empty-net goal and an assist to give him 13 points. "I think that’s probably one of our biggest strengths is that we have four good lines that can score every night."
“It’s been the key throughout the whole year for us. It’s great to have that."
And that’s what winning a Cup is all about, no, finding a way? Having players step up and be counted?
“That’s the only way you’re going to win this time of year,” said Ryan Kesler, who played much of the night against Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and limited him to one shot on goal. "You need everybody contributing offensively and defensively, and you saw a lot of guys blocking shots out there and a lot of guys scoring goals. We had four lines going tonight and that’s why we won."
And if the questions, at least for a game, were answered in the Ducks' locker room, the loss had the opposite effect in the Chicago dressing room as Game 1 suggested that the team’s depth along the blue line might be an issue.
David Rundblad was pressed into the Chicago lineup to start the conference finals following the season-ending injury to Michal Rozsival late in the second round, and Rundblad was on the ice for the first two Anaheim goals. He ended up playing 10:47 on the night while the team’s sixth defenseman, Kimmo Timonen, played just 5:15, illustrating again just how great a burden the Blackhawks’ top four defenders, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya, seem destined to carry moving forward in this series.
Quenneville was asked about the defensive issues and insisted he wasn’t concerned.
"I think we’re fine," he said. "We’ll work our way through it."
Meanwhile, Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau, coaching in his first conference finals, earned high marks for lineup decisions he made, adding Jiri Sekac and Emerson Etem to drive up the speed quotient in place of Tomas Fleischmann and Tim Jackman.
“We made a couple of adjustments and played better in the second and third,” Boudreau said. "I still don’t think it was our A-game. You allow over 30 shots; we got lucky when we scored. We were opportunistic tonight. We’re going to have to play better if we want to continue to stay with these guys."
On many levels, Game 1 of this highly anticipated conference finals did not disappoint -- unless you’re a Blackhawks fan, of course.
And there aren’t many who don’t believe this one won’t be over quickly.
But the Ducks -- whose two third-period goals now give them an astounding 18-3 goals for/against in the third period this spring -- have served notice that they belong with the big boys.
"They’re a dangerous team. All four lines can score, all four lines have speed,” Quenneville noted. "They’re an attack team and they push the pace.
"They’re not just a cycle team; they’re dangerous off the rush. No matter who’s on the ice, they’re capable of making plays, and we have to be aware of that."
Trailing in games for the first time this spring, it’s now up to the Blackhawks to prove they still belong in the big boy club, too.