NHL Western Conference Final Preview: Despite Having Home Ice Advantage, Anaheim Has an Uphill Battle

Believe it or not, the team with the best record in the Western Conference this year has to prove their worth in the conference finals.

The season is winding down, and we’re now on the verge of the Western Conference Final. The Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks are meeting for the first time in the big game -- Anaheim has steamrolled their way to get there, while Chicago has escaped the gauntlet that was the Central Division. Both teams have earned the right to play for a spot in the Stanley Cup Final, but which team will advance?

Our Stanley Cup Final probabilities favor the Chicago Blackhawks, giving them a 25.31% chance of raising Lord Stanley’s Cup, second behind the New York Rangers. The Ducks come in with a 19.91% chance, the worst of the four teams remaining. The algorithm also gives Chicago a 53.61% chance of winning the series over Anaheim. That's a fairly large gap in respect to the Stanley Cup predictions, and not favorable for a team with home-ice advantage like the Ducks have. The team tied for the most points in the West, and mopped the ice with their first two opponents in the 2015 playoffs. What gives?

The Ducks lead all playoff teams in even strength goals for/against (5-5 F/A) and power play percentage, and are 0.4% behind the recently-eliminated Capitals in face-off percentage. Anaheim has been no slouch on the penalty kill as well, ranking fifth in the playoffs at 87.1%.

With that said, their opponents have been nothing special. The Winnipeg Jets nearly flamed out of the playoffs towards the end of the regular season, and the Calgary Flames defied advanced statistics (-4 goal differential, 44.5 Corsi For Percentage at even strength during the regular season) while becoming one of the feel-good stories of the 2014-15 season.

The Ducks beat the teams that they were supposed to beat to get to this point.

The Blackhawks finished third in the Central Division, the toughest one in the NHL. They eliminated the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild, who were led by Vezina Trophy finalists Pekka Rinne and Devan Dubnyk. And they did so after Corey Crawford started Chicago’s opening round series against the Predators by laying two massive eggs in games one and two.

Dubnyk and Rinne laid their own collective eggs against Chicago. Rinne posted pedestrian numbers with a 2.68 goals against average (GAA) and 90.6 save percentage (SV%) in six games. Dubnyk had to show that he could overcome mediocre games in the Wild’s opening series win against the St. Louis Blues. He didn’t, ending his season by posting a 2.75 GAA and 90.1 SV% in four games against Chicago.

Since his meltdown, Crawford has regained his play, stopping 137 of 144 shots faced (95.1 SV%). Between games two and three versus the Wild, Crawford allowed one goal on 61 shots. So much for the "Corey Crawford is bad, 2015 edition" narrative.

Matchups to Watch

Anaheim’s best chance to survive and advance against Chicago is by winning the special teams battles. Where the Ducks have thrived, the Hawks have not. Chicago’s 20.0 power play percentage is good for fifth in the playoffs, but their abysmal 72.7% penalty kill is fifth worst. It's no secret that Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry have been the two key cogs in Anaheim’s offensive attack. Add in the steadiness of Ryan Kesler and the emergence of Jakob Silfverberg, and you’re looking at a formidable top-six forward grouping.

Anaheim has also received contributions from their defensive corps. Five Ducks defensemen rank in the top 20 in playoff points despite playing only nine games. That scoring depth has to be there, because Anaheim has received very little from their bottom-six forwards, a theme that has plagued them for the past few seasons.

Chicago is favored in large part because of their forwards and scoring depth. Patrick Kane should have returned from injury in time for a few games in a second round matchup if Chicago advanced. Instead, he has played the entire playoffs and is second in scoring behind Corey Perry. What should scare Anaheim is the return to form for Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa. The two have been M.I.A. for stretches during the regular season, and are now solidifying Chicago’s top six. And, of course, Jonathan Toews can't be left out of the conversation of best players in the NHL.

This sounds awkward, but Chicago is going to miss Michal Rozsival. His play has been suspect to downright awful for majority of the season, but his play in the series versus the Wild was some of his best all season. He was finally distributing the puck well and pushing play out of the defensive zone -- his bread and butter -- while not being dead weight that fellow blueliner Duncan Keith had to carry around. David Rundblad will get the first crack at replacing Rozsival.

This series should be close, as both teams know how to score and have done well to control play. But even with home ice advantage, Anaheim has an uphill battle facing one of the deepest and best teams in the NHL. There are reasons why the algorithm is predicting a Blackhawks series win. It’s up to Anaheim to show otherwise.