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'Safe' Chicago D-men could give Sweden edge

by Brian Hedger / Chicago Blackhawks
Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson's effective play made them attractive to Team Sweden (Bill Smith / Chicago Blackhawks).

CHICAGO -- Joel Quenneville doesn't need many words to describe what makes Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson such an effective defense pairing for the Chicago Blackhawks.

"Safe," the Blackhawks coach said this past weekend. "Safe, reliable, simple."

Quenneville likes simplicity in players, particularly defensemen. He also likes reliability quite a bit. Yet, if there's one thing the coach with the third-most wins in NHL history might value even more, it's safety.

Oduya and Hjalmarsson have provided that for the Blackhawks in big amounts the past couple seasons, and they're becoming Chicago's "shut down" pair because of it. They're highly "predictable" in the defensive zone, to use one of Quenneville's favorite terms, and they give their coaches a luxury not available on many NHL rosters.

That safety is probably a big reason both Chicago defensemen were selected to compete for Sweden in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, which will be the first Olympic appearance for Hjalmarsson and the second for Oduya.

"We're both kind of responsible," Oduya said. "We want to play good defense, have good gaps, have good position and sticks, and when we can we try to jump into plays and create something. We feel comfortable with each other, and we're just trying to push it as much as we can. We want to evolve."

Their numbers and the matchups they're getting say they already have.

While keeping their defensive play safe, Oduya and Hjalmarsson are also finding ways to add more spice to the Blackhawks' offense. Through 54 games, Hjalmarsson has already set career highs in goals (four), assists (18), points (22) and shots (66). Oduya has the same number of goals (three), assists (nine) and points (12) as he did through the 48-game 2012-13 regular season.

"We've probably gotten a little bit more offense from them than we saw last year, whether it's [Hjalmarsson] or [Oduya]," Quenneville said. "They've been more of a threat in the offensive zone."

They've also been used like a second No.1 pairing.

Since Oduya was acquired in a trade with the Winnipeg Jets at the NHL Trade Deadline during the 2011-12 season, he and Hjalmarsson have become a formidable duo. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are widely considered the Blackhawks' top pair, for good reason, but Quenneville's matchup choices tell a slightly different story.

He appears to have a top offensive pairing that's also good defensively, as well as a top defensive duo that can add a little offense.

Oduya and Hjalmarsson often shift with Chicago's second and third lines and routinely face the top forward line of the opponent as the shut-down pair. They also log a lot of minutes on the penalty-kill units, leading the team in blocked shots.

This strategy puts the offensively gifted Keith and Seabrook into better scoring opportunities. They both play on the power play, but also jump on the ice more often at even strength with the Blackhawks' top line of Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa.

It creates sort of a super-five unit that can make even-strength play feel like a Chicago power play at times. It seems to be working.

Keith has three goals and 43 assists, and is plus-17. He leads all defensemen in assists and ranks second in scoring among blueliners. Seabrook has six goals and 27 assists, and is plus-22. Each has launched more than 100 shots on goal.

Meanwhile, the top defensive pair is also plugging along.

The 32-year-old Oduya is the same dependable, puck-moving defenseman he's always been, and 26-year-old Hjalmarsson has developed into more of a two-way threat the past couple years.

Hjalmarsson is starting to sense more opportunities to get involved offensively without relenting at the defensive end. He credits his biggest offensive strides, however, to a stint during last season's lockout playing in Italy for the HC Bolzano Foxes, when he scored six goals and had 16 assists in 18 games before heading back to Chicago for the NHL season.

"I think it actually helped me a lot, believe it or not, playing in Italy and getting some time on the power play," he said. "I also played a lot and had the puck a lot and got more comfortable with it. I just tried to bring some of that over here for this League, and I think it's been going pretty good so far."

His defense partner agrees.

"He's evolved as a player since I got here, and he's just very easy to play with," Oduya said. "I don't have to do that much on most nights. We always knew he was good defensively, blocking shots and being responsible, but maybe he's now got that little bit of extra confidence to try some of those [offensive] plays and have that balance to kind of have the foundation and then move forward."

They'll both move forward to Sochi, most likely as a defense pairing for what appears on paper to be a strong Swedish team. Chicago center Marcus Kruger will also be on the team, but the merits of having a top defense pairing to start out are obvious.

"It always helps if [you play with] somebody you know, so I would assume that's how we'll start and then see how it goes," said Oduya, who played for Sweden in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. "It's going to be a lot of fun. It's just going to be a little bit different with the bigger ice surface."

Hjalmarsson is simply happy to make a dream come true.

"Pretty much since the last Olympics, when I didn't make it, I kind of set that out as a goal that I definitely wanted to be on the team the next time," he said. "I reached that goal, and I'm proud of that. Being 26 years old, turning 27 [in June], it's a good age to play hockey. I can't wait to go and play there."

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