TAMPA -- The Stanley Cup Final has reached the point at which people begin debating who's in the running for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the postseason.
Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith is one of the candidates often mentioned as a Conn Smythe contender, and with good reason; he's the top scorer among all defensemen this spring and is averaging more than 31 minutes of ice time a game. Though he can't win the award himself, the man standing behind Keith on the Blackhawks' bench, assistant coach Mike Kitchen, also deserves some recognition for the way he's deployed Chicago's defense.
The way the Blackhawks have used their defensemen, especially the top-four, has been a major talking point throughout their run toward a third Stanley Cup in six seasons. With the best-of-7 series against the Tampa Bay Lightning tied 2-2 heading into Game 5 at Amalie Arena on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports), how well those defensemen withstand the wear and tear may become an even bigger factor.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper quipped earlier in the series that the Blackhawks' top-four defensemen did not have the same heart rates as everyone else, simply because of how often they are on the ice. But what gets lost in that discussion is how difficult it must be for Kitchen to choose which defensemen he will send out at any given moment in the game.
"Obviously we have certain guys who we end up playing more shifts [with] than we do with other guys," Keith said Friday. "I think we played enough hockey and enough games to get a sense when we're probably going to be up. But at the end of the day I think we've got all capable defensemen that are all out there, and we're all being utilized. Every shift is important. I think they've done a good job with that."
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has answered questions about how much Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya play throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs; not surprisingly, he has run out of ways to answer questions about it.
But an answer he gave Friday provided a bit of insight as to how Quenneville, a former defenseman, views the situation.
"I feel the more defensemen play, your game's more productive or effective," he said. "I think whether it's matchups or trying to get offensive guys or defensive guys on the back end is something that's part of it, but at the end of the day a lot of those guys know they're going out there almost every other shift."
This is not a normal occurrence.
Most NHL defensemen do not have to know they are going out there every other shift because, by and large, they don't.
While it is impressive to see how much they are playing, the way the Blackhawks' defensemen are being used makes for a complicated matrix of information Kitchen needs to absorb and process.
"You have to be aware of who's up every shift, who's the next call," Hjalmarsson said. "You don't want to have an unnecessary penalty with too many men on the ice. So you just kind of have to be aware of matchups and what [Kitchen] wants, who he wants to be putting out there."
In Game 4, four of the Blackhawks' six defensemen played at least one shift at 5-on-5 with four other defensemen; the other two spent time on the ice with three other defensemen, according to war-on-ice.com.
That's a far cry from a traditional team that has three set pairings, because Kitchen needs to keep in mind when each defenseman played last in order to avoid sending a tired player on the ice. It's a situation that is created by the fact the Blackhawks do not want their fifth and sixth defensemen playing significant minutes.
For instance, in Game 4, Oduya played 11:14 at 5-on-5 with Seabrook, 5:48 with Hjalmarsson, 4:08 with Trevor van Riemsdyk and 1:02 with Kimmo Timonen. Kitchen needs to be aware of when Oduya came off the ice, who he came off with, what the desired matchup is for him and who the Lightning are sending out on the ice.
That's a lot of information to process in a short amount of time.
"We just try to help each other out and communicate, as it goes pretty fast sometimes," Hjalmarsson said. "You have to be able to make fast decisions. You can help out a little bit, but the coaches make the call."
And those coaches probably deserve a bit more credit for making those calls on the fly.