ANAHEIM, Calif. -- An urgency has overtaken the Western Conference finals, a kind of frenetic energy that will push both the Anaheim Ducks and the Chicago Blackhawks to the end -- whenever that might be.
After the Blackhawks’ dramatic double-overtime win in Game 4 Saturday night in Chicago, Game 5 will be Monday (9 p.m. ET) in Anaheim. The teams return to Chicago for Game 6 at the United Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET).
But are we destined for a seventh game Saturday in Anaheim?
Here are some thoughts on what is, through four games, turning into a classic series.
Evenly matched: A year ago, the Western Conference finals between the Los Angeles Kings and the Blackhawks was a rollicking series with Chicago winning the first game, the Kings the next three, before Chicago roared back to force a seventh and deciding game at the United Center that the Kings won on Alec Martinez's overtime winner.
It was one of the greatest series I've ever covered and it appeared on a number of the ESPN hockey group’s lists when recently asked for a list of the all-time great playoff series.
But this series is already rivaling last year’s epic, what with a monster triple-overtime game in Anaheim in Game 2 followed two games later by Game 4's ridiculous drama that saw Anaheim score three goals in 37 seconds in the third period, the second-fastest trio of goals in playoff history.
Throw in the fact that both teams have won on the road and neither team has won two in a row, and this one is simply too close to call.
“This series is pretty amazing when you look at the four games,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said Sunday in Chicago before his team jetted west. "Very close, very competitive.
“Every year is different. Trying to win the Cup has some amazing swings, highs and lows, twists and turns. The deeper you get in games, the deeper you get in series, it's all the more challenging. We love our group's experience and know-how and will to find ways. [Saturday] night was a great demonstration of that."
Coach Q drama: Speaking of Quenneville, he is one of the most successful coaches in NHL history. He has two Stanley Cup rings and is six wins away from a third. As his Ducks counterpart Bruce Boudreau noted earlier in the series, Quenneville is likely headed to the Hall of Fame, an assessment with which I agree.
But that doesn’t mean every once in a while he doesn't push a few wrong buttons, or push all the right buttons and still have stuff blow up in his face.
Like when Quenneville took Antoine Vermette and Teuvo Teravainen out of the lineup for Game 3, which the Blackhawks lost at home, in favor of Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom. As one NHLer noted when discussing the lineup decisions, you can sometimes overthink things.
Then there was Quenneville’s perfectly reasonable call of a timeout in the third period in Game 4 after the Ducks had tied the game with their second goal in 23 seconds. But 14 seconds after that timeout, the Ducks took their first lead of the game with a Corey Perry goal. Who knew?
For the record, Quenneville said it might have been the stupidest timeout he’d ever called.
Sounds familiar: Something kind of circular about the fact that Saturday’s three-goal outburst in the third period in 37 seconds was only the second-fastest three-goal outburst by a team in NHL playoff history. The fastest? The Toronto Maple Leafs versus the Atlanta Flames, in April 1979, and among those who chipped in with points during the barrage was Quenneville. His counterpart, Boudreau, was also a member of that team but not playing. The three Leafs goals came in just 23 seconds.
And the series Conn Smythe goes to: So, who has been the most important player for the Blackhawks in this series? You can argue Corey Crawford, who has matched Anaheim’s Frederik Andersen save for save through some of the most wide-open overtime sessions I've ever seen.
But for me -- and maybe for lots of the Blackhawks -- it has been veteran Brad Richards. You’ll remember the frustration by the former playoff MVP the past couple of years in the postseason while with the New York Rangers, being a healthy scratch in 2012 under coach John Tortorella and then struggling to find his legs in the finals a year ago against the Kings.
But Richards, who signed a one-year deal with Chicago in the offseason for $2 million, has been a key contributor in this series, recording points in all four games. His delightful cross-ice pass to Patrick Kane after the Ducks’ three-goal barrage allowed the Blackhawks to tie the game on the power play and set the stage for Vermette's double-overtime winner.
“The puck's been finding him,” linemate Bryan Bickell said Sunday. "He's been getting in good spots to receive, or turnovers, making great plays as you can see on that last goal with Kaner.
“He's been a guy that's been around this league for a long time. Veteran leadership on and off the ice. Happy to see him doing what he's doing."
So, what will Richards’ future be? Is there still room for the classy 35-year-old as the Blackhawks continue to search for a true No. 2 center to line up behind Jonathan Toews and possibly youngster Teravainen? Does his playoff success entice another potential contender to take a run at the potential unrestricted free agent in spite of his 12-goal regular season?
Bickell pressing: Speaking of Bickell, he is an interesting case study in the dilemma of how to value playoff performances. What NHL GM doesn’t love a big, sturdy forward who elevates his game and produces points in the playoffs, even if he doesn’t necessarily do so during the regular season? Bickell, who is playing mostly with Richards and Kane, lit it up in the 2013 run to the Stanley Cup, with nine goals and eight assists, including two game winners and the tying goal in Game 6’s Stanley Cup clincher in Boston.
Based almost entirely on his playoff performance, Bickell signed a four-year deal worth $16 million in the summer of 2013. He followed that up with seven more playoff goals the following spring.
But Bickell has never scored more than 17 goals in a regular season, nor topped the 40-point mark. This spring, after a 14-goal regular season, Bickell has yet to score in the playoffs and has five assists. He did hit the crossbar in overtime in Game 4, but certainly his production has fallen off the map and with two years remaining on his deal and the Blackhawks entering another period of salary cap crunch, that’s more than a little problematic.
“Yeah, you know, it would be nice to see the puck going in the back of the net a little more than it has,” Bickell said. "It's getting closer. If you don’t get those opportunities, then you ask what’s wrong. But I rang one off the crossbar last game. It was an inch from going in, to swinging the game. You know, I just need to be physical, get in the paint, create havoc that way, and I'm sure eventually one will go in."
Banging on the D: So, the series is now a best-of-three. Will Game 5 be when we start to see evidence of the Ducks’ overall superior defensive depth? Quenneville noted Sunday that it seems to be all the media is talking about, and even if the Blackhawks prevail, it’s a storyline that’s not going away unless Quenneville suddenly has an epiphany and decides to unbolt veteran defenseman Kimmo Timonen or Kyle Cumiskey from the end of the bench.
Thanks to colleague Craig Custance for pointing this out: In Game 4, Duncan Keith played almost as much in the first overtime period (10:11) as Timonen did in the whole game (10:15). Cumiskey saw a little bit more ice time as Game 4 wore on but still logged only 13:27 (five minutes in the overtime sessions), which means the Blackhawks' top four defenders -- Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya -- are still logging vast minutes.
In Game 2, Keith played nine seconds short of 50 minutes. He led all skaters with 40:39 in Game 4. By comparison, Boudreau is giving his six defenders all roughly the same amount of ice time. The Ducks' leader in ice time in Game 4 was Cam Fowler, at 32:31.
Of course, the Ducks’ game plan is to roll four big, fast forward lines that are punishing those top-four defenders every chance they get.
“They're coming hard, they're being physical, got a fast team,” Seabrook said. "But we've got a pretty good group back there. Our forwards are doing a good job at helping us out, making it a little easier for us coming back, and limiting odd-man rushes, coming back and presenting themselves so we can get the puck out of the zone quick, not take as many hits. You know, I feel fine.”
Predictably, the Ducks feel the series is going to be won and lost in this battle of attrition and that they’re well positioned to come out on top.
“We're just going to keep with our game plan,” Ducks center Ryan Kesler said. "I think it will wear them down. It's going to wear them down. No human can withstand that many hits. We're going to keep banging out there and going after them."
Ducks know how to bounce back: Yes, it’s a valid question to ask how the Ducks bounce back yet again from a crushing multiple-overtime loss in a game in which they were the better team for long periods, especially in the overtimes.
But what about Chicago? What about the emotion that is expended in winning such games? The Blackhawks are 4-0 in overtime this spring and yet they followed the first three overtime wins with losses, two against the Nashville Predators and one against the Ducks. So perhaps I'm looking at the equation the wrong way.
For the record, the first two times the Ducks have lost this spring, once against the Calgary Flames and once against Chicago in Game 2, they have bounced back to win.
“I think our intensity in the game goes up,” said Kesler, who has faced off against Toews for most of the series. "It's about responding. Everything that we designed this team around this year, I think was our ability to put things past us and move on, and keep playing and not let things affect us outside the game or from game to game.
“So I think we come back, get right back at it again. Anxious to get back on the ice after a disappointing loss. We've been able to do that so far."