CHICAGO – The Hawks are handing the keys to the D.
After two straight playoff series facing murky defenses and ace goaltenders that put the pressure on Chicago’s offense, roles will reverse as the Blackhawks wheel into Detroit to begin their first Western Conference Final in 14 years. While Detroit’s defenders and skilled netminder Chris Osgood will construct their share of roadblocks in an attempt at slowing the high-octane Chicago offense, it’s the Blackhawks' defensemen who will be pressured more than ever.
The challenge for Chicago’s core defensive trio, All-Star Brian Campbell and starting duo Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, is twofold: First, disrupt Detroit’s precision offense, which wastes little energy and is as deep, skilled and experienced as any team in the League. Second, drive the transition game that’s been a hallmark of Joel Quenneville-led clubs.
It’s a lot of pressure on a largely untested bunch, which also includes stalwart rookie Niklas Hjalmarsson, Cam Barker and Matt Walker. But the group has been playing better now than at any point on the year, so as heady a challenge as the Red Wings provide, it’s ready.
"There’s a lot of firepower over there," said Campbell, who collected seven assists against Detroit on the season and whose playmaking in May has been better than at any point during the regular season. "If you get too caught up in what they’re capable of doing, you’re not going to have a lot of success against them."
If Campbell is the "skill and speed" star of the defense, alternate captain Keith is the engine that drives the Blackhawks. And as the owner of the best plus/minus on the team at plus-33 (and plus-4 so far in the postseason), Keith clearly is Chicago’s biggest litmus player.
"I just try and help this club in whatever ways I can," said the soft-spoken Keith, who notched career highs across the board in 2008-09 and managed 12 more points in five fewer games on the season. "We all have a responsibility to leave everything out on the ice, so I don’t feel I’m doing anything more than anyone else."
If only that formula held up. Truth is, when Keith’s game is off, partner Seabrook is unable to get free for his characteristic big hits and shrieking slappers, and the club is destined for a sloppy game played mostly in its own zone. But when Keith is on, all of Chicago’s moving parts are in sync, and the team seems unstoppable.
"We take (Keith) for granted here, I think," Quenneville said after Saturday’s practice. "We know his value to us, clearly, but he does everything so well. He’s such a steadying influence."
Seabrook agreed. "I can’t do half the stuff I can on the ice without (Keith). He’s under control at all times. The responsibility he takes on frees me to be a little more aggressive than I might otherwise be."
Campbell was brought into Chicago as a free agent specifically for his skills as an "offensive" defenseman, someone whose patrols of the back ice wouldn’t come at the expense of charges across the red line. His speed and stickwork have been at times astonishing in the postseason, and it’s clear that as Chicago’s season speeds toward its 100-game mark, "Soupy" is just hitting his stride.
"It’s been great to contribute to these (series) wins in my very first year here," said Campbell, who leads all Hawks defenseman with a plus-5 and nine points in the playoffs. "No one knew (a playoff run) would happen so fast. But we’re enjoying every minute and just going for it."
Yes, the Datsyuks, Zetterbergs and Hossas await, and the Franzens, Hudlers and Lidstroms may be licking their chops, but Chicago’s defense has honed itself into perhaps man-for-man the strongest aspect of its team. So whether the Wings fly in on an odd-man rush or set up for one of their patented surgical strikes, these blueliners will be ready.