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Blackhawks lean heavily on top-four defensemen

by Brian Hedger / Chicago Blackhawks
(Getty Images)

CHICAGO – The Chicago Blackhawks arrived Wednesday looking like a team that played deep into the night Tuesday to defeat the Anaheim Ducks 3-2 in the third overtime of Game 2 of the Western Conference Final at Honda Center.

Among those who met with reporters was defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, who still looked bleary-eyed after playing a career-high 47:35 in the win that evened the best-of-7 series at 1-1. He wasn’t the only one who looked a little bushed.

Centers Brad Richards and Jonathan Toews did too, and it’s a safe bet the other three defensemen who comprise Chicago’s top four were dragging just as much. Duncan Keith (49:51), Brent Seabrook (47:46) and Johnny Oduya (46:06) all played at least 46 minutes in Game 2, as Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville continued to lean on them heavily in the absence of injured veteran Michal Rozsival (fractured ankle).

"Yeah, [that] was a lot of minutes last game," Hjalmarsson said. "But we won the game, and we move on from there, start focusing on [the] next game. Personally, I feel fine. I have no complaints."

He rarely does, even when dealing with pain inflicted by pucks, sticks and hard body checks. Neither of the other three will complain about playing too much either, but their combined ice time has become a big storyline in the series.

Without Rozsival, who is out for the rest of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Blackhawks’ top four defensemen soaked up 84.9 percent of the 339:20 played by Chicago defensemen in the first two games.

That’s an increase of almost four percent from the amount they played in Chicago’s sweep of the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference Second Round and 10.3 percent more than the 74.7 percent they absorbed of the total minutes played in the regular season.

Quenneville has three options to fill the bottom two defense roles now, and his allotment of playing time indicates he doesn’t trust 40-year-old Kimmo Timonen, Kyle Cumiskey or David Rundblad enough to lighten the load of the top four.

He was asked about it Wednesday and pointed to the extended layoff the Blackhawks had between the second round and Game 1 of this series, which began Sunday.

"We just had 10 days off, so I feel pretty good about it," Quenneville said. "I mean, their defense played just about as many minutes as [Keith, Hjalmarsson and Seabrook]. They're playing hockey. There’s enough recovery time."

Anaheim had three defensemen finish with more than 40 minutes in Game 2, but only one, Francois Beauchemin, reached the 46-minute mark like Chicago’s top four. The Ducks, who’ve yet to play former Blackhawks defenseman James Wisniewski, are simply deeper on the back end and have tried to exploit the advantage.

The Ducks accumulated hits in the first two games and Blackhawks defensemen were often targeted. Even Timonen felt the physical brunt of Anaheim’s physicality when he was hit hard a couple times during a 1:28 shift late in the first period of Game 2.

It will be more of the same in Game 3 at United Center on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

"Hopefully [it wears them down], that’s our game plan," Beauchemin said. "Our game plan is to get the puck in deep and forecheck their [defensemen], finish our checks [and] play down low. You know, they’re in good physical shape. Obviously they’ve been playing most of the year with four or five defensemen. They’re used to it. [We’ve] just got to make sure we keep that puck down low and focus on our offense."

Quenneville indicated that Cumiskey might actually play more in Game 3, which would give the top four a reprieve. He played 18:34 in Game 2, his 2015 postseason debut, and his ice time increased in the third overtime.

"I liked his game," Quenneville said of the speedy Cumiskey. "I think he'll get a little better off [Tuesday’s] game, too. He's one of those kids [who] the more he plays, the more he sees what's out there. I think he'll take advantage of that. His quickness was noticeable."

The heavy workload for the Blackhawks’ top defenders is what stands out most for now. It would be easy for any of them to feel overwhelmed by glancing at their ice times, but Hjalmarsson said that’s not something he plans to do.

"Personal stats don't matter at all when it comes to playoff time," he said. "It's all about getting the win or not, just trying to do whatever you can to help the team win. If that means to play a lot of minutes … try not to mess up at the same time. I'll try that."

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