ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Someday the Anaheim Ducks and the Chicago Blackhawks will relish the stories they’ll be able to tell about playing in a postseason series as good as these Western Conference finals.
Not just now, though. They’ve still got to determine whether this tale has a happy ending or a brutal punchline.
Two weeks of extraordinarily high-level hockey conclude Saturday night at Honda Center when the Ducks and the Blackhawks play Game 7 for the Campbell Bowl and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. They’ve traded victories for six tense games across the past two weeks, playing six overtime periods and four one-goal games.
Both teams used Thursday for travel and mental preparation for the big finish after Chicago staved off elimination with a 5-2 victory in Game 6.
The teams also did a bit of reflection on what’s shaping up as a conference finals as memorable as Chicago’s seven-game epic with the Los Angeles Kings last spring.
“It’s for sure the most exciting series I’ve ever been a part of personally,” said Ducks defenseman Francois Beauchemin, a Stanley Cup champion with 96 games of NHL playoff experience.
The games have mostly been close, but they’ve also been extremely well-played. Anaheim’s deep, balanced lineup has wrestled Chicago’s star-powered roster to a virtual stalemate through six games, with the Blackhawks winning two of the three overtime contests to avoid large series deficits.
“We play for these big games,” said Chicago forward Marcus Kruger, whose goal ended Game 2 in triple overtime. “You never get tired of hockey. That’s what everyone plays for.”
It’s been a spellbinding spectacle for fans and players alike, particularly in those overtime thrillers — even if the coaches aren’t having quite the same experience.
“I can’t feel it, quite frankly,” Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I’ve asked people, ‘Is this a good series? Is it entertaining?’ You’re caught up in the moment of winning and losing. People say it’s unbelievable, but we look at it as a little different right now. It might be something you appreciate one way or another in six months or in the future.”
The Ducks might feel a bit more pressure than the Blackhawks on home ice, and not just because they controlled long stretches of the series and got painfully close to finishing it in those overtime games.
They also have a daunting bit of recent history to overcome: The Ducks have blown a 3-2 series lead and lost a Game 7 at home in each of the past two postseasons, and they’re one loss from doing it again.
Anaheim dropped two straight to Detroit in the first round in 2013, and it fell short in the second round last spring against the future champion Los Angeles Kings.
“I’m not bringing that up to them at all,” Boudreau said. “Every year is a different entity. The guys who have been here those three years know what’s happened. If we have to draw on extra motivation for a Game 7 with a chance to play for the Stanley Cup, then we’ve got the wrong guys. And we have the right guys in here.”
Yet Chicago has a failure to overcome in its own recent postseason history. The Blackhawks took Los Angeles to a seventh game in the Western Conference finals last spring, rallying from a 3-1 series deficit, only to lose in overtime when Alec Martinez’s shot deflected off now-departed defenseman Nick Leddy’s torso for the conference-winning goal.
Patrick Sharp was on the ice when Martinez’s goal crushed the United Center.
“You could feel the air go out of the building,” Sharp said. “You could feel your heart drop a little bit, being that close. Battling back from being down in that series against the Kings, (it) was a tough way to go out on home ice. You learn from it. You use it as hunger to get back to the situation and try to learn from your past experience. Hopefully it’s a different scenario for us this time.”
And while the Ducks appear to have a team that could contend again next year with much the same roster, the Blackhawks realize roster upheaval could be coming for a franchise with hefty bills to pay from seven straight playoff campaigns.
Chicago’s window isn’t exactly closing, but consecutive losses on the brink of the Stanley Cup Final would be heartbreaking wasted opportunities.
Just another thing for players to think about in the extra day off before the grand finale.
“I credit the guys, their focus, their preparation, their will to want to win, finding ways to win,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. “They love the journey. They’re competitive beyond what you could want it to be. It’s a testament to their competitive level.”
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.