Victor Hedman blasts a shot by Brent Seabrook (Scott Audette/Getty Images)
As Game 1 approaches, we break down the battle of the blueline between the Lightning and Blackhawks. Chicago will rely on their top four to have marathon performances, while Tampa Bay’s steady, minute-eating top pairing of Hedman and Stralman could turn the tide in the series.
You may not have heard yet, but the Chicago Blackhawks have been relying on four defensemen for much of the post-season. Don’t expect that to change anytime soon, though, as with the Stanley Cup on the line, coach Joel Quenneville will be utilizing his top-four blueliners as often as he can.
As for the Tampa Bay Lightning, well, they’ve got a stable of defense that has been steady from top to bottom. Coach Jon Cooper gets to work with young rearguards like Victor Hedman and Andrej Sustr, while veteran blueliners such as Anton Stralman, Jason Garrison and Matt Carle help calm things down and allow Cooper to rotate through his pairings without fear of having to shorten his bench.
While most talk has been about the flashy forwards in this series – and when you get Patrick Kane facing off against Steven Stamkos, there’s a lot to get excited about – the matchup could come down to which defense corps performs better under the bright lights of the Stanley Cup final. Here is what you should expect from the blueliners of the Lightning and the Blackhawks:
Goals For percentage: Unlike breaking down each team’s respective line combinations and points total at 5-on-5, the best way look at how these defensive pairings have fared is by seeing what percentage of the 5-on-5 goals their team is scoring when the blueliners are on the ice. And, in that regard along with many others, Victor Hedman has been an absolute gem for the Lightning this post-season.
Over the course of the regular season, not a single defenseman cracked the 70 percent plateau in Goals For percentage at 5-on-5. Yet, during the playoffs, Hedman has done exactly that, helping Tampa Bay dominate the competition and score 72.2 percent of the 5-on-5 goals while he is on the ice. His partner, Stralman, is no slouch either, with an even 50 percent, but what Hedman has done this post-season should have him as an underdog contender for the Conn Smythe.
Matchup: The Swedish duo is going to see a lot of Kane, Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad. There’s no doubt that every time the Blackhawks’ top line is on the ice, out will trot Hedman and Stralman. As a line-matching mad scientist of sorts, Quenneville will probably try to get his top guys out there against the other pairings as often as he can, but it’s unlikely Cooper lets Chicago’s top unit get too far away from the Lightning’s top pairing.
That said, Cooper basically rolled through his pairs in the Eastern Conference final and it worked in his favor. Don’t be surprised if he does it again. He has that much trust in his defense pairings.
How they succeed: Good, clean zone exits that kill the Chicago forecheck and don’t let Toews and Saad set up below the Tampa Bay goal line. The Blackhawks, especially Toews and Saad, were able to control the puck behind the Anaheim net in the Western Conference final and it led to opportunities being created for the Chicago defense. With Kane on Toews’ wing, any open ice created by the Blackhawks’ cycling the puck could be a goal waiting to happen. Both Hedman and Stralman are great at moving the puck, but this will be their toughest test.
Goals For percentage: Duncan Keith isn’t the top performing defenseman on the Blackhawks, but he’s nearly there with a 5-on-5 GF percentage of 60.5. However, it could be much, much higher were it not for the fact that Keith has been on the ice for 15 5-on-5 goals against this post-season. His 15 goals against are the second most of defensemen in the Stanley Cup final, and the only player who has seen more goals go against him in the post-season is his parter, Hjalmarsson. Keith has, however, been out there as Chicago tallied 23 goals at 5-on-5, far and away the best total for a defenseman.
Matchup: Who won’t Keith face? He’ll spend time against the top line with Stamkos and the Blackhawks star defenseman will be forced to defend against the Tyler Johnson ‘Triplets’ line. Unlike Cooper, Quenneville has his go-to guys and he’s going to stick with them against the Lightning’s best, while leaving the Lightning's bottom six to battle against the Blackhawks' second and third pairings.
What’s worth noting, though, is the duo of Keith and Hjalmarsson is not a pairing in the traditional sense. They may start the game together and they may even spend more time side-by-side than with any other Blackhawks blueliners, but Keith will also skate with Brent Seabrook and possibly David Rundblad, while Hjalmarsson will also see time with Seabrook and Johnny Oduya.
How they succeed: Hjlamarsson won’t be asked to create offense, but he will be asked to be the shutdown defender he has been throughout the season. He may also have to come up with some quality defensive plays because it wouldn’t be surprising to see Keith jumping up into the play to create offense just as he has done all post-season. Keith will succeed simply by playing the way he has throughout the playoffs: moving the puck efficiently, pinching when the opportunity arises and putting the breaks on the Tampa Bay attack with his stick.
Goals For percentage: Garrison has been good for Tampa Bay and he figures into the top-four when it comes to GF percentage on the Lightning blueline. The issue, though, is Coburn, who through 20 playoff games has been on the ice for six goals for and 12 against. That’s not the kind of play that makes a coach comfortable, but there’s speculation Coburn is fighting through some sort of ailment, as he missed the Lightning’s final 14 regular season contests with a lower body injury.
Matchup: Putting Garrison and Coburn against the Blackhawks’ second line looks like a great matchup on paper, as they should be able to deal with the speed and size of Marian Hossa, Brad Richards and Bryan Bickell. Using the pairing against Patrick Sharp, Antoine Vermette and Teuvo Teravainen could also work, and it’s possible they draw Chicago’s third line in Game 1. Like the top pairing, though, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Garrison and Coburn simply used as part of the Lightning’s defensive rotation.
How they succeed: If Coburn can change his 5-on-5 fortunes, then the Lightning defense could be enough to shift what should be a near-even series in Tampa Bay’s favor. Neither blueliner is going to wow offensively, but Coburn did come up clutch once already this post-season with the game- and series-winning goal in Game 7 of the first round. If they chip in even a few points and slow down the Blackhawks’ speed through the middle of the ice, it’ll create a serious edge for the Lightning.
Goals For percentage: Cumiskey’s numbers aren’t really worth talking about seeing as he’s only made it into six games this post-season, but Seabrook is leading the defense corps at 5-on-5 Goals For percentage. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Seabrook has scored five times at 5-on-5, either. Again this post-season, the 30-year-old defenseman has shown why he, just as much as Keith, is a huge contributor to Chicago’s success.
Matchup: Like Keith and Hjalmarsson, Seabrook will be moved about in the pairings, but when he and Cumiskey are together, look for them to take on a mix of the second, third and fourth line. Cumiskey’s greatest strength is his speed and he uses it well to get out of tough situations, so even if he and Seabrook draw the Johnson line, he might be able to exploit the Lightning forecheck by quickly wheeling up the ice the other way.
How they succeed: For what it’s worth, Cumiskey hasn’t looked altogether out of place on the Chicago blueline, but it’s clear Quenneville only trusts him in limited minutes. This pairing, when together, will succeed simply by not making mistakes. When moving the puck, Cumiskey has to get up ice and force the Lightning defense to turn, while Seabrook, one of the best first-pass defensemen in the series, will look to fire pucks up the ice to stop the Tampa Bay forecheck.
Goals For percentage: Just as Coburn has been subpar for the Lightning in this category, so has Carle. Thankfully, though, Sustr’s game this post-season outweighs Carle’s shortcomings at 5-on-5. No Tampa Bay blueliner, not even Hedman, has been on the ice for more 5-on-5 goals than Sustr. Tampa Bay has scored 15 goals while Sustr is on the ice at five a side and only nine times has Sustr watched the puck go into the Tampa Bay goal at 5-on-5. His 62.5 percent goals for percentage is third best on the team.
Matchup: If Cooper does roll his pairings, there’s a good chance this unit draws the line of Sharp, Vermette and Teravainen. Aside from a few instances against the Ducks, Vermette’s line was relatively quiet on the score sheet and Carle and Sustr can likely make that a reality again. Over these playoffs, Sustr has taken huge strides in his first full year on the Lightning blueline. Of the top six, Sustr is averaging the least time, but Cooper should be comfortable putting him out against the Blackhawks’ bottom six.
How they succeed: Carle has always been a strong skater and good at exiting the zone with a good breakout pass. That’s exactly what he’ll need to do against the Blackhawks. There aren’t many players in the Chicago lineup that excelled at carrying the puck into the Anaheim zone in the Western Conference final, so winning battles and moving the puck out of danger will be key.
Goals For percentage: Like Cumisky, Rundblad hasn’t suited up enough for his numbers to mean much of anything outside of showing Quenneville’s not extremely comfortable using him in the post-season. Oduya, on the other hand, has the worst Goals For percentage at 5-on-5 of any regular in the Blackhawks lineup at 42.3 percent. Michal Rozsival’s was worse, but he’s been out since the second round.
Matchup: Rundblad won’t draw any tough minutes and will likely start most or all of his shifts on offensive zone faceoffs, but Oduya will see time with Seabrook and Hjalmarsson defending the second and third lines. Oduya will need to watch the skilled players, though, as they likely paid attention to Game 7 of the Western Conference final in which he was beaten at least twice on toe-drag moves.
How they succeed: Rundblad is going to do well if he can simply skate the puck up ice, dump it in and get the Blackhawks started on their cycle. For Oduya, it’ll be his ability to join the rush that will help Chicago, but he also offers Hjalmarsson and Seabrook a familiar face on the blueline. Together, Oduya and Hjalmarsson played a lot of tough minutes together over the past two seasons, so look for that pairing.
Nikita Nesterov: For a seventh defenseman, Nesterov has played quite a bit thanks in large part to Cooper dressing seven defensemen in more than half of the Lightning’s post-season games. He’s also played well in the game action he’s seen and showed some serious offensive flair in the first round against Detroit. If he draws back in, he can offer a boost in offense from the back end.
Kimmo Timonen: Against a team as fast as the Lightning, it’s unlikely that Timonen works his way back into the Blackhawks lineup. Quenneville has tried the experiment, but it clearly wasn’t working for him because, for Chicago’s two most important games of the season in Game 6 and 7 of the Western Conference final, Timonen wasn’t in the lineup.
Trevor van Riemsdyk: It sounds a lot like ‘TVR’ is going to be back for the Blackhawks in the final, which is remarkable considering he has missed just about the entire season with a leg injury and a wrist injury in the AHL. He had surgery on the wrist and is near-ready for the biggest games of his young career, according to Quenneville.