Jiri Sekac and Duncan Keith (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
The Chicago Blackhawks will have Antoine Vermette and Teuvo Teravainen back in their lineup for Game 4 against the Ducks, but tweaking the forward group won't cover up their more pressing depth issues on the blueline.
It’s hard to believe Duncan Keith is playing on the second-best blueline corps in this Blackhawks-Ducks series, but after three games, that is very much the case.
The Ducks are wearing down the Blackhawks with hard-hitting, tight-checking, slow hockey, grinding Chicago’s skill players and hammering their thin defense at every opportunity. And that’s exactly the way Anaheim should be playing, as the Hawks are clearly afraid to ice their third defensive pairing in these playoffs.
Joel Quenneville will try to jump-start his squad in Game 4 by inserting Antoine Vermette and Teuvo Teravainen into the lineup again, but those guys won't address the glaring holes on defense that are more likely to sink this team.
Chicago simply doesn't have the defensive depth to cut it right now, and the burden is weighing heavy on the top four guys they do have faith in. Duncan Keith is a minus-3 with just one assist through three games against Anaheim. Niklas Hjalmarsson’s numbers look the same, while Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya each have one assist and an even rating.
Those four are trying valiantly to pick up the slack for injured No. 5 defenseman Michal Rozsival, who is out for the season following ankle surgery. Rozsival was averaging 17:26 in ice time, and Quenneville has opted to spread that time out between his top guys rather than give it to a replacement sixth defenceman.
He certainly isn't willing to give extra time to Kimmo Timonen, who is playing single-digit minutes this post-season. Timonen is averaging 9:27 a night and hasn’t scored a point. He played only 5:15 in Game 1 and 6:50 in Game 3, while Keith gobbled up more ice time than anyone in each of those games.
As for the No. 6 slot, the Blackhawks are running out of options. David Rundblad was an adventure playing 10:47 in Game 1. Kyle Cumiskey stepped in for the next two games, but he averaged just about seven minutes of ice over that time. The next tryout in that spot might soon be Trevor van Riemsdyk, who was called up to the big club on Friday. Coach Q is clearly looking for someone – anyone – who can reliably log 10 minutes on the back end, and he's already run out of options.
Now compare Chicago's blueline to Anaheim's, and it's obvious why the Ducks are faring better in this series. Hampus Lindholm has a goal and three points. Simon Despres has a goal and assist, Cam Fowler has two assists and Sami Vatanen has a helper. Francois Beachemin has been held off the score sheet, but he’s averaging 25:36 on ice these playoffs as the Ducks’ leading minute-muncher. In fact, Clayton Stoner is the only Duck blueliner playing less than 20 minutes a night (he skates for 18:03 on average). And to top it off, all six players have positive plus-minus ratings in this series.
Lindholm, Vatanen, Fowler and Despres are all under the age of 24, but they're playing hugely important minutes and contributing at both ends of the ice. They're also sharing the workload and making Bruce Boudreau's job that much easier behind the bench, because he doesn't have to worry about any of them being a weak link.
Boudreau is content to roll the same six defensemen, and if the Ducks run into injury trouble, he's got offensive-minded James Wisniewski up his sleeve as a replacement.
Chicago has no one to replace Rozsival, and we're seeing them struggle because of it.
Chicago has a far more experienced blueline and the better top three defensemen in this series, but they don’t have the depth Anaheim does. And in Round 3, when the injuries start to take their toll and fatigue begins to creep in, Chicago’s defensive problems could spell their end.