MINNEAPOLIS – The Chicago Blackhawks have played their best defense of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs in the past two games against the Minnesota Wild, but coach Joel Quenneville has shortened his bench in each game.
Quenneville has played mostly five defensemen in the previous two games, which were won by the Blackhawks to take a 3-0 lead in the best-of-7 Western Conference Second Round series. The odd man out was 40-year old veteran Kimmo Timonen, whose ice time keeps dwindling.
Timonen, acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 28, averaged 11:58 in 16 regular-season games. He's averaged 9:31 per game through the first nine games of the playoffs and played a combined 12:01 in the past two games. Top defenseman Duncan Keith is absorbing most of the minutes normally reserved for a sixth defenseman, but hasn't shown signs of being worn out yet.
"[Keith] played meaningful minutes in the last couple of games, but it's something he's accustomed to doing and we're comfortable giving him those minutes," Quenneville said. "We'll see how taxing some of those minutes are, and at the end of the day, you look at it going into the next day, how you think he's going to handle it. He usually doesn't give you any reason why he can't do it again … but we'll see."
Timonen played 5:44 on 10 shifts in the Blackhawks' 1-0 victory in Game 3 at Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday. That included one 40-second shift in the third period, when the Wild dominated the action while feverishly pushing for a game-tying goal. Keith skated a game-high 29:22 and played 10:57 in the third on 14 shifts.
Quenneville said matchups and other factors went into his allotment of ice time.
"You're playing that game to win and every game's close," he said. "How the matchups and sorting out of who's on the ice and who you're thinking of playing against in the course of a game, and the score, sometimes dictates ice time."
Aside from Keith, who's averaging about five minutes more per game in the playoffs (30:44), Quenneville is also giving more time to the four other defensemen who are playing the most. Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Michal Rozsival are all averaging more ice time in the playoffs than they did in the regular season.
That's often a red flag during the course of an 82-game regular season, but the Blackhawks don't sound too concerned yet. They've still got two defensemen, David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey, who haven't played a single minute and it helped that nearly a week passed between the end of their first-round victory against the Nashville Predators and the start of this series.
Should they eliminate the Wild in either of the next two games, the Blackhawks will get even more time off before the Western Conference Final.
"It's the playoffs, the best time of year and we all want to be out there," Seabrook said. "We want to be playing as much as we can and helping the team out as much as we can to get to the end goal we want. [The] coaching staff does a good job of giving us rest and days off and light skates throughout the playoffs. That's huge. That helps us get ready for the games."