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Can Blackhawks defense corps hold up for one more series?

Ken Campbell
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Duncan Keith (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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Can Blackhawks defense corps hold up for one more series?

Ken Campbell
By:

If Duncan Keith looks a little gaunt and haggard, there's a good reason for it. The guy has been averaging more than 31 minutes a game through the playoffs for the Chicago Blackhawks and is expected to do more of the same in the Stanley Cup final.

TAMPA – As Johnny Oduya sat in his stall after the morning skate, he was sipping on a concoction that looked and smelled like chocolate milk. We’re guessing there were a few other ingredients in it. But whatever he and his pals on the Chicago Blackhawks defense corps are taking through these playoffs, it’s working.

Conventional wisdom suggests teams can never have enough depth on defense in the playoffs. It’s always been believed that the more extra defensemen you have, the better chance you have of going on an extended playoff run. But before Michal Rozsival went down in Game 4 of the second round with a very ugly fractured left ankle, the Blackhawks were already down to five defensemen. And since then, they’ve essentially been going with four.

One would have to think that an integral part of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s strategy in this series would be to go after the Blackhawks defensemen and wear them down. Good luck with that. Near as we can tell, Duncan Keith is a cyborg. He’s averaging 31:35 in ice time these playoffs, which is an average of eight minutes a game more than Victor Hedman, the top minute muncher for the Lightning. Niklas Hjalmarsson is second at 26:33, followed by Brent Seabrook at 26:21 and Oduya at 25:23.

As we go into Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, the burning question is: How long can the Blackhawks defense corps hold up? Well, it has done a remarkable job so far and really, what’s seven more games when you’re on a roll like these guys are?

“At this point, we feel good,” Oduya said, “but even if you didn’t feel good, it wouldn’t matter at this point. I think everybody who has the opportunity to play games like these, somehow you put those feelings aside. It’s just a matter of being smart and not extending yourself too much and taking long shifts. At this point, I have a tough time seeing that being an issue.”

The Blackhawks have some built-in advantages that make rolling four defensemen a little easier. The first is that all four of them are veterans who know how to pace themselves. This is the third time around for Keith, Seabrook and Hjalmarsson and they’re all accustomed to long playoff runs. Another is the fact that much of the time, either Jonathan Toews or Marian Hossa is on the ice as a forward. Having players who are that defensively responsible and aware undoubtedly makes life easier for the defensemen. And when Patrick Kane gets the puck on his stick in the defensive zone, the Blackhawks take comfort in knowing they have one of the league’s best puck-luggers taking it out of danger.

Things may change too, if rookie Trevor van Riemsdyk can make an appearance in the series. The Blackhawks have not been able to trust veteran Kimmo Timonen and was a healthy scratch in Game 6 of the Western Conference final. But van Riemsdyk, who played just 18 games this season before undergoing surgery on his kneecap and later, his hip, is an intriguing possibility. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville loved what he saw from van Riemsdyk in training camp and his 18 games with the team and appears to have no hesitation in inserting him into the lineup.

“We saw firsthand what he was able to do when he came into training camp,” Quenneville said. “Surprised us all how well he played, how effective and efficient he is.

We’ve been skating him in practice every day. One of his strengths is his reads, positionally aware, decision making with the puck. He’s got a lot of attributes that can help our team. I think he came onto the scene rather fast for us. I think we have a lot of confidence and trust in him.”

That the Blackhawks would be counting on a rookie to take some of the heat off their veterans is a little odd, but the Blackhawks have an uncanny ability of putting their players into positions where they can succeed.

The Lightning, by contrast, has played much of the playoffs with seven defensemen and 11 forwards. The Lightning hasn’t needed much production after its top six forwards, so going with an extra defenseman makes sense for them. That’s part of the reason why only Hedman and defense partner Anton Stralman have averaged more than 20 minutes a game in the post-season.

“For us, we just get to move guys around a little bit more,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “We give you different looks. Some of the defensemen we’ve played, six or seven defensemen, they’ve given us really good minutes as opposed to maybe what the 12 forwards would give. It’s just a different look. We’ve been comfortable with it.  I’ve been comfortable with it in my coaching career.  It doesn’t always work, but it’s having a pretty good run here in the playoffs.”

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Can Blackhawks defense corps hold up for one more series?