To help celebrate NBC Rivalry Night, NHL.com will look at a rivalry within the rivalry of the featured game on Wednesday nights.
Welcome to Rivalry Night Faceoff, a new weekly feature that looks at one of the most significant head-to-head matchups in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game. This week, we're analyzing the top defense pairs for the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks, what makes them click and which is better.
Blues defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, and Chicago's top guys, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, are minute-munchers and candidates to play for Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in February. All four can offer realistic arguments as to why they are part of the top defense pair not only in the Wednesday Night Rivalry game, but in the entire NHL.
Is one pair better than the other?
"It's two totally different pairs," NBCSN analyst Pierre McGuire told NHL.com. "Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester are elite, elite skaters. The same thing can be said about Duncan Keith. Seabrook is not an elite skater, but he's one of the more robust defensemen in terms of board play, containment, crease clearing, shot blocking. This is a situation where they're different and it's hard to say who is better."
Let's try to figure it out anyway:
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock has Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo together because he thinks their hockey IQs and skating abilities sync up well. He likes the fact that they know when to give up the puck and that they rarely hang on to it for too long. He also knows they won't typically pass the puck to their partner when he's either not ready for it or would have no options once he receives it.
But the best part about this pair is how well they skate and how many minutes they play. Bouwmeester, who was acquired by the Blues in April, routinely averages between 25-26 minutes per game. Pietrangelo has been right around 25 minutes per game in each of the past two seasons.
Pietrangelo isn't necessarily flashy, but he's the flashier of the two. He's being paid $45.5 million over the next seven years to become a Norris Trophy-winning defenseman. He already has three assists in two games and had 24 points in 47 games last season after putting up 51 points in 81 games in 2011-12.
Bouwmeester is more about minutes and security. He's also paid handsomely -- with the five-year, $27 million contract extension he signed during the summer, his total earnings from 2009-19 will be $60.4 million -- but he's faced his share of criticism because his offensive production hasn't matched what he makes. He hasn't topped 29 points in any of the previous five seasons despite never missing a game because of injury.
McGuire said the criticism isn't warranted because Bouwmeester is less about points and more about efficiency. He's a security blanket.
"I thought when St. Louis got Bouwmeester it really enhanced their defense a ton," McGuire said. "The fact they re-signed him speaks to that. They know how good he is."
The combination of Keith's speed and instincts and Seabrook's power and shot have given the Blackhawks one of the top defense pairs in the League for the past several seasons. It's no surprise Chicago has won the Stanley Cup twice with these two playing together.
"They're like an old married couple," McGuire said. "They maybe don't talk all the time, but they work really well together."
Keith knows he can skate with the puck and be lightning quick to the point of attack because Seabrook is there to back him up.
Seabrook knows he can sneak into the offensive zone and use his booming shot because if it gets blocked and that leads to a transition opportunity the other way, Keith will retreat fast enough to get back into the play and, more times than not, take away a potential scoring chance against.
Like Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester, they are intelligent players. They know when to give up the puck and when to keep it, where to put it and how to keep it away from danger.
Keith almost always gives the Blackhawks a four-man attack. He has 310 points in 609 career games. He had 13 points in 22 playoff games last season and was arguably Chicago's best player in the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins.
Seabrook is physical, strong and possesses a heavy, hard shot that can surprise goalies. He can be particularly dangerous on the power play, but his bread and butter is on the defensive end.
"He's almost like an unbreakable player," McGuire said.
Verdict: These are elite defensemen and they all could play for Canada in Sochi this coming February. The difference between the two top pairs now is about winning. Keith and Seabrook have won the Stanley Cup twice and have Olympic gold medals around their necks. Pietrangelo has won one playoff round while Bouwmeester didn't play in the playoffs until last season, his 10th in the NHL. The Blues went out in the first round. Neither has been to the Olympics. Keith and Seabrook have the rings, so they have the edge in this matchup.