The Western Conference finals’ opening game is finally complete, and though the 4-1 loss the Chicago Blackhawks suffered against the Anaheim Ducks obviously wasn’t the desired result for readers of this website, the game was far from a disaster.
The ’Hawks dominated possession during the first two periods, and a few great saves by Ducks goaltender Frederik Andersen gave Anaheim the chance take Game 1. The Ducks tightened up in the third period, offering fewer opportunities for Chicago to make a comeback.
But there was something else you may have noticed in that third period that brings up a larger issue. In the final 20 minutes of Game 1, the ’Hawks’ defensemen seemed a step slow and struggled to get the puck moving in the correct direction.
Joel Quenneville and Co. knew this round wouldn’t be easy minus Michal Rozsival. Fans frequently bag on the 36-year-old, but Rozsival did play enough minutes per night during the first two rounds to take a little load off Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya.
In the first game against Anaheim, we saw Q push those four very hard, with Keith and Seabrook both topping 26 minutes (28:25 and 26:57, respectively). Oduya finished at 22:29, while Hjalmarsson was at a below-normal 20:10, although three Chicago powerplays account for some of Hjammer’s time off.
Before we talk about the other two ’Hawks’ defensemen, let’s first talk about the top four a little more. Specifically, did Q overplay them on Sunday?
Da Windy City
There are a few ways to look at this. Of course, the ’Hawks had more than a week between their final game against Minnesota and their first at Anaheim. So if there was ever a game to push any of the players, you could argue it was this one. Additionally, the ’Hawks were trailing less than 9 minutes into the contest, forcing them to chase. Keith and Seabrook are both tasked with moving the offense in such situations (more so Keith), so seeing their numbers up after that isn’t stunning.
On the flip side, the ’Hawks are facing a physical Ducks squad that had little problem taking a chunk out of Chicago players when the opportunity rose in Game 1. Also, Anaheim spent much of the first two periods trying to stretch the ice and make the ’Hawks’ defensemen act and move quickly. While that strategy arguably offered Chicago more opportunities thanks to turnovers and missed passes, it wasn’t a complete failure. It made all six Chicago defensemen expend a little extra energy with each Anaheim success, which contributed to tired legs for those on the ice the most as the game rolled on. That especially made a difference in the third period, when the Ducks began standing up the ’Hawks at every opportunity and really preventing their offensive zone entires.
This is where David Rundblad and Kimmo Timonen come in. It’s hard to argue Rundblad deserved any more time than he got in Game 1 (10:47), as two of his mistakes wound up behind Corey Crawford. Hopefully, he’s in a “better from here” situation after finishing his first playoff game — with the jitters gone, we should expect a little better performance from him in Game 2. But his minutes should likely be restricted to the type of minutes Timonen received in the first two playoff series. Meanwhile, Timonen needs to be playing somewhere closer to Rozsival’s minutes from that same timeframe, maybe 16 minutes a night. He played a whopping 5:15 against Anaheim on Sunday, but he actually looked good doing so. Part of that is the benefit of heavily sheltered zone starts, but another part is Timonen getting comfortable and performing like the capable veteran he is.
So what does it all mean? Moving forward, Q needs to consider a little more Timonen to assist Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson and Oduya. Those four are going to get big minutes as this series goes on, and we know they’re never going to say they can’t handle it. But against a physical Ducks team, the minutes take more of a toll over the course of a game. Timonen was brought in to actively help Chicago’s defense, and it’s time to extend him a longer leash, specifically with playoff newbie Rundblad playing as well.
Decreasing the workload of the top four defensemen in this way would keep their legs just a little more fresh as games go on. And that can make all the difference when the ’Hawks need that push from the back end, especially from Keith and Seabrook, or when they need a crucial penalty kill involving Hjalmarsson and Oduya.
One additional thing to consider with Timonen: He shoots lefty. Only Seabrook and Rundblad are right-handed shots, which makes pairings a little wonky. It could be a reason Timonen doesn’t play more, as a way to create some balance among the shooting handedness of the defensemen. But Hjalmarsson and Oduya play together as a pair of lefty shots. It shouldn’t be a reason for Timonen to only be paired with Seabrook and keep the former from more ice time.