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Canucks relying heavily on top four defensemen

by Dan Rosen
VANCOUVER, B.C. -- Kevin Bieksa is playing four more minutes per game in the playoffs than he did in the regular season. Dan Hamhuis is averaging roughly three and a half more minutes per game. Alex Edler and Christian Ehrhoff, the Canucks top two minute-munchers in the regular season, are third and fourth, respectively, in the playoffs, but still playing a bit more now than they did then.

For a team that boasts about having eight NHL defensemen available, having half of them logging more than 24 minutes per game and the top two over 26 in the playoffs can seem alarming.

It's not to the Canucks, who can advance to the Western Conference Final for the first time in 17 years with a win against Nashville in Game 5 Saturday at Rogers Arena (8 p.m. ET, CBC, VERSUS, RDS). Vancouver leads the best-of-seven series, 3-1.

"That's what happens in playoffs," said Bieksa, who leads Vancouver and is 12th in the NHL at 26:29 per game. "There are tight games, different scenarios whether you're down a goal or up a goal, and there are different guys that will log more minutes according to that. Nobody really pays a whole lot of attention to that. When you're call to go out you go out and you do your job."

Canucks coach Alain Vigneault insists that he's using his third pair as he's planned, but since Vancouver has been in seven one-goal games, including four that have gone to overtime and one into double OT, the situation has called for him to lean heavily on his top four.

No team that has played into the second round has or had four defensemen logging more than 24 minutes per game, but it should be noted that Bieksa, Hamhuis and Edler all played more than 37 minutes in the double-overtime loss in Game 2 against the Predators.

"I would say that on most teams your top four D play in the lower 20s and if you head into overtime they are going to play more minutes," Vigneault said. "That's normal in the regular season and playoff hockey. Our guys are used to it. We've made sure energy-wise and fitness-wise they are fine, and I think they are enjoying it."

Bieksa said one of the ways he stays fresh is by not worrying about the long-term effects of playing big-time minutes.

"The thing with playoffs is you're not really pacing yourself on any given night. You're going full out every night, leaving it all out there, and then you get a day to recover in between," Bieksa said. "The key is really using that day in between, replenishing your body and doing what it takes to make sure you're fresh again. But, I think if you ask anyone in this room they'd gladly play more minutes than they did in the regular season. In the playoffs everyone wants to be out there as much as possible and making a difference."

Hamhuis, who is second on the team in ice time per game at 26:03, told he requires a lot of body maintenance not only on the off days, but immediately before and directly after games as well.

"It's a lot of hot tubs and cold tubs, a lot of stretching and being in tune to my body," he said. "If I feel the need to practice I will, but if I'm feeling a bit tired and feel I need to take an optional (practice) off than I do. I make that read at that time."

At least the Canucks haven't done much skating on off days because they've mostly been reserved for travel. Their charter flights were four and a half hours between Chicago and Vancouver, and five hours between Nashville and Vancouver.

Granted, there are no connections to make, but sitting on a plane after playing 24 or more hard minutes the night before can still be taxing on the body.

"I don't know the science behind it, but sitting on a plane is probably not the most healthy thing for guys either," Hamhuis said. "In five hours you get sore backs and tight legs, but we're not skating that much right now and just saving everything for the games."

The numbers suggest the Canucks' top four defensemen are flourishing with the extra ice time.

Ehrhoff leads all NHL defensemen with 9 points and combined the four have 19. Bieksa is fifth in the League with 37 hits and Edler is sixth with 36. He's averaging twice as many hits per game in the playoffs than he did in the regular season. Edler also leads the Canucks' blue-liners with 27 shots on goal. Two have resulted in goals.

Beyond the offensive production, Nashville is getting next to nothing from its top forwards, including zero points in the series from Mike Fisher, Patric Hornqvist and Sergei Kostitsyn. They combined for 13 points in six games against Anaheim. Shea Weber has also been blanked by the Canucks.

"Our D are doing a heck of a job," Vancouver forward Tanner Glass said. "Hamhuis and Bieksa especially, those guys are playing big minutes against their top forwards and shutting them down quite nicely."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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