CHICAGO – Just before the opening puck dropped Saturday night at United Center, Brent Seabrook leaned past a couple of teammates on the bench and gave Duncan Keith a little motivational fist bump.
Defense - CHI
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 1
SOG: 22 | +/-: -4
Just like that, the Chicago Blackhawks' most familiar defensive tandem was back together for the start of Game 5 in a Western Conference Semifinals that the Detroit Red Wings were trying to close out.
Instead, the Blackhawks, who entered the game trailing 3-1 in the series, earned an impressive 4-1 win. The score was identical to their Game-1 win on May 15, but the main storyline for this season-salvaging victory was the re-pairing of Seabrook and Keith, who were part of a defensive shakeup on March 31 that lasted until Saturday night.
"It's a comfortability we've had," Seabrook said of his on-ice rapport with Keith. "We’ve played together for a lot of years, a lot of games. I know where he’s going to be and he knows where I’m going to be."
Until Game 5, however, the only place they could really find each other at the rink was in the locker room, where they share stalls right next to each other. While Keith has rebounded from a slight performance dip from his elite standard the past two seasons, Seabrook's difficulties this year weren't just confined to the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
His play in Game 3 and Game 4 at Joe Louis Arena even led Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville to drastically cut his ice time. In Game 4 on Thursday, Seabrook played just 3:02 on six shifts in the first period and only 12:03 spread between 20 shifts in what turned out to be a 2-0 Red Wings win.
Some coaches would have continued that trend in the next game. But Quenneville did the opposite, putting Seabrook back with Keith and increasing both his ice time and responsibility.
Seabrook made it pay off, too. He delivered a crushing hit on Detroit forward Damien Brunner to help set the tone of the game, made crisp passes to Blackhawks forwards for rushes up the ice and logged 23:20 over 31 shifts. He also launched seven of Chicago's 45 shots on goal and picked up his first playoff point with a secondary assist on Andrew Shaw's power-play marker in the second period.
"It was nice [to see]," said Keith, who collected a pair of assists. "He's a good teammate, a good guy and I've played with him for a long time. It's always nice to play with him, have that comfort and the fact you know where he's going to be. I thought he played good considering he was coming off not playing very much. It's tough to do that – not physically, but mentally – and he did a great job."
Like Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews – who scored his first goal of the postseason in Game 5 – Chicago is going to need Seabrook to play that way again Monday night in Game 6 at Joe Louis Arena (8:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
"Absolutely, we need him," Keith said. "For us to win [Monday night], we need him. He's a guy that has that presence out there."
When it's not out there, the Blackhawks’ back end suffers.
It sometimes goes forgotten about Seabrook, but he was also a member of the Canadian team that won the gold medal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver playing alongside his buddy, Keith. He’s still just 28, stands 6-foot-3, 221-pounds and can pound the puck from the point when he pulls the trigger.
That's what Quenneville was hoping to spark when he made the decision to return to the pairings the Blackhawks started with during their unprecedented 24-game point streak during the regular season.
"We felt our problem [in this series] wasn't really on the back end [defensively], it was production," Quenneville said. "Reuniting those two [Keith and Seabrook] probably got them excited. I thought we might get a little more offense from our overall pairs."
He was right. The Blackhawks got three combined assists from Keith and Seabrook and another helper from Michal Rozsival, who went back to shifting with Nick Leddy. They also had plenty of grit from their blue line, led by Seabrook.
Besides his offensive abilities, Seabrook can also be an intimidating presence for opposing skill players. His struggles in the series' first four games may have helped Seabrook recapture some of that signature nastiness. It was also a shot to Seabrook’s pride to sit on the bench for so long in Game 4; a humbling experience he wasn't looking to replicate this postseason.
So when asked by reporters in Chicago the morning after Game 4 if these playoffs had been a struggle for him personally, Seabrook's response was short and sullen.
"Yep," he said.
Seabrook expounded on that answer Saturday by simply playing like his old self – steady, confident and full of presence.
"[During] my time here in Chicago, I've always had a lot of responsibility and been put out in key situations and been against their team's top line. I thought I've done a good job over the years," Seabrook said. "I took pride in it. That was my job, so to speak. [Toews] scored goals, [Kane] makes passes and scores goals [and] I was a shutdown guy, a physical guy. I made it tough on the other team's top players. That was the role that I loved and that was the role I took pride in. And every day I come to the rink, that's the role that I want to play."