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Blackhawks' top four keep carrying load on defense

by Arpon Basu / NHL.com

TAMPA -- Logic and an understanding of the limits of the human body would suggest that this cannot last.

The Chicago Blackhawks have ridden four defensemen into the Stanley Cup Final, and they have ridden them hard. Each of the four, Duncan Keith (31:27), Brent Seabrook (26:21), Niklas Hjalmarsson (26:20) and Johnny Oduya (25:17), is averaging more than 25 minutes of ice time per game.

No other healthy Blackhawks defenseman is averaging more than 11 minutes.

In the Western Conference Final, the Anaheim Ducks figured they would pound those four defensemen every chance they got, on every forecheck, on every Blackhawks breakout and every pass attempt. Eventually, the physical toll being dished out had to have an effect, and over the course of a long series the Ducks would see the benefit of it.

It was a very sound theory. It didn't work.

Keith, in particular, looked as fresh playing 27:51 in Chicago's 5-3 victory in Game 7 as he did playing 28:25 in a 4-1 loss in Game 1.

"He's pretty amazing," said Hjalmarsson, Keith's partner on defense. "He could be a great [cross-country] skier, or a Tour de France [cyclist]."

The Tampa Bay Lightning could reap the benefits in the Final of the work started by the Ducks, but there was no evidence that Chicago's top-four defensemen were slowing down at all in the Blackhawks' 2-1 win in Game 1.

But what became clear in that game was that the Lightning would not be taking the same approach as the Ducks did, and that will continue in Game 2 at Amalie Arena on Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

"Clearly their hearts don't beat at the same rate as everybody else, because they can stay out there forever," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Friday. "It's fun to watch those guys, but they're human. They turn the puck over just as any other [defense] corps does, you just have to put them in a position to turn it over. You have to put them in positions to take pucks out of their hands."

The way the Lightning plan on doing that is not by pounding it out of the Blackhawks defensemen, but rather by using their speed to create pressure and turnovers, something they did effectively in the first period of Game 1 but less so in the third period when Chicago scored twice to win the game.

"Our job is to make sure they don't have any time to do anything they want with the puck," Cooper said. "I think that's where we had our success. It's not that you have to run those guys through the glass, it's not any of that. It's hard to play when you don't have the puck, and that's our goal, to make sure it's out of their hands fast."

After enduring the constant physical abuse dished out by the Ducks, it would be natural for the Blackhawks defensemen to feel somewhat relieved they won't have to go through that against the Lightning.

Not so, according to Hjalmarsson.

"I think they're a little bit of a different team. Maybe not as physical," he said. "Tampa plays a bit more of a skill game. Not as big, but super-fast and skilled forwards that we have to be aware of every single shift. You can't take a shift off or they're going to expose you.

"It's not as physical maybe as the last series, but skill-wise it might be a step up."

In other words, the approach might be different, but that doesn't make it any less difficult or taxing. Instead of going back to retrieve pucks knowing a forward is bearing down to hit them, the Blackhawks will be going back knowing there is a structure of forechecking pressure forming behind them ready to pounce on the slightest mistake and turn it into a goal.

It can be just as exhausting, but not in the same way.

"I think both styles can be very tough to play against," Oduya said. "Like I said in the last series, nobody likes to get hit. But on the other hand, if you can't make plays and play in the NHL at this time of the year and take a hit, you're going to be in trouble. Same kind of thing here; you have to be able to kind of race for those pucks and you know that pressure is coming. You're going to have to be quick."

Just as in the last series, it's difficult to avoid the belief that over the course of a long series the Blackhawks defense will eventually begin making more and more mistakes under the pressure created by the quickness of the Lightning's forecheck.

Keith (29:15), Seabrook (26:23), Oduya (23:46) and Hjalmarsson (22:34) again ate up the bulk of the minutes on defense in Game 1, with David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey combining to play 12:23. Perhaps the eventual insertion of Trevor van Riemsdyk into the lineup could lower the burden on the top-four, but considering he hasn't played an NHL game since November, that seems pretty unlikely.

No, this is the Blackhawks' defense, and the onus is on the Lightning to figure out a way to take advantage of a less-than-ideal personnel situation for Chicago coach Joel Quenneville.

But it won't be easy. Just ask the Ducks.

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