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Blackhawks to allocate big minutes to top defensemen

by Brian Hedger / Chicago Blackhawks
(Bill Smith / Chicago Blackhawks)

CHICAGO -- The top four defensemen for the Chicago Blackhawks need to store up as much energy as possible because they're probably going to play a lot during the remainder of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Veteran defenseman Michal Rozsival is out for the rest of the postseason because of a fractured left ankle, and Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville doesn't have a replacement he fully trusts to handle the entire 17:26 of ice time per game Rozsival had been averaging in the playoffs.

David Rundblad, 23, will enter the lineup in the Western Conference Final, but he and 40-year-old Kimmo Timonen will not be asked to fill the void themselves.

"[Rundblad will] come in and play, and minutes are dictated by how he plays and how the score of the game goes," Quenneville said after practice Sunday. "Other guys are accustomed to playing significant minutes. Every game's [going to] be different, but his play and the game and the score will play a lot into it."

The same goes for Timonen, whose ice time has decreased steadily as the playoffs have progressed. Blood clots caused Timonen to miss about nine months, and the 16-year veteran, acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers prior to the NHL Trade Deadline, hasn't recouped enough speed to warrant more ice time.

The only other option on the roster is 28-year old Kyle Cumiskey, who spent most of the season with Rockford of the American Hockey League. Cumiskey is fast but doesn't play the right point and lacks Timonen's playoff experience.

Rookie Michael Paliotta, who played one regular-season game after signing with the Blackhawks at the conclusion of his college season at the University of Vermont, is training for next season and no longer with the Blackhawks.

That means the vast majority of minutes on the back end likely will be divided among the top four defensemen: Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya. Along with Rozsival, they handled increased workloads in Games 2 and 3 against the Minnesota Wild and absorbed almost the entire third period of Game 4 in Chicago's 4-3 series-clinching win.

The Blackhawks have a maximum of two series and 14 games left in the playoffs. It sounds like Quenneville is willing to gamble that his best defenders can handle even more minutes the rest of the way.

"I think it's kind of the same philosophy you always have," Quenneville said. "You're playing to win that game. [Defensemen] at certain times might get extended to play. I think they're smart enough positionally and aware of how they defend that they'll keep themselves in plays. At the same time we still want to be active in the attack. I think they can manage it. It's tough to forecast in the middle of a game."

Keith is averaging 30:38 of ice time through Chicago's first 10 playoff games, about five minutes more than his regular-season average, and leads all defensemen still playing. Hjalmarsson (24:39) and Seabrook (24:03) are playing about two minutes more than they did in the regular season, and Oduya (24:29) is playing about four minutes more per game.

"I think every game is different and how we play each series is different," Keith said. "We have guys that are capable of playing a lot of minutes and guys that are capable of stepping up and playing when they get asked to play. I think as we go along here everybody is going to get to play."

Rundblad will get his first crack at it whenever the next series starts. He hasn't played since the regular season, when he was used in the final three games. In 49 games he had three goals, 11 assists and a plus-17 rating, which tied right wing Marian Hossa for third best on the Blackhawks. Quenneville, however, sheltered Rundblad by starting him predominantly in the offensive zone.

"I feel like this whole season so far has been my best since I came over here [from Sweden in 2011]," said Rundblad, who was acquired by Chicago prior to 2014 trade deadline from the Arizona Coyotes. "Now it's the playoffs and it's the best time of the year. I'm really excited right now."

Timonen might be less excited. He averaged 11:58 in 16 regular-season games with the Blackhawks and has watched that number drop in the postseason. He's down to 9:25 a game in the playoffs after logging less than 10 minutes in the last three games against Minnesota.

Timonen played one 40-second shift in the third period of Game 3 at Xcel Energy Center and three shifts for a total of 1:43 during the third in Game 4.

"I think he's played situations where the minutes as the game goes on probably go down a little bit," Quenneville said. "I'm sure he wants to be out there. It's all part of being a pro. I think as a defenseman the more you play the better you feel you're contributing. [It's] probably not easy, but at the same time he's been fine."

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