Chicago Blackhawks: Are The Top Four Defensemen Being Overworked?

By Skylar Peters

The Chicago Blackhawks got a huge win in Game Four of the Western Conference Final on Saturday night. In a swing game that could have left the ‘Hawks down to the Anaheim Ducks 1-3 in the series, going on the road, they escaped with a win that tied the series 2-2.

However, in typical Blackhawks post-season fashion, they didn’t make it easy on themselves, and the win came at a cost.

For the fourth time this post-season, the Blackhawks played five periods to decide a winner. Just four days after playing the longest game in franchise history (also a Blackhawks’ win), the ‘Hawks again took the game to multiple overtimes.

It’s a hard price to pay, but after giving up three Ducks goals in 37 seconds, and having their 3-1 lead vanish, and become a 4-3 deficit with just a dozen minutes left in regulation, the Blackhawks could be in worse positions right now.

Counting the double and triple-overtime games in the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Nashville Predators, the ‘Hawks have played nearly three full games, just in overtimes.

Fatigue is being brought up more and more as the playoffs wear on, and despite the Blackhawks having 9 days of rest in-between their second-round sweep against the Minnesota Wild, and the start of the Western Conference Finals, it seems that everyone is pegging the Blackhawks to wear down.

Nowhere is the fatigue more prevalent than the Blackhawks’ blue-line. After Michal Rozsival went down with an ankle injury in Game Four of the second round, the Blackhawks knew they would have to lean on their ‘big four’ even more: Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Johnny Oduya. Behind them, David Rundblad, Kimmo Timonen, and Kyle Cumiskey have all played limited roles in the series, due to age for one, and inexperience for the others.

The Blackhawks basically playing four defensemen sounds bad enough. Add in all of the extra time, and a physical series, and it sounds like the teams’ blue-line is prepared to crumble.

Through four games, however, they have been up to the task. Though Keith knocked on the door of an unprecedented fifty minutes of time-on-ice in Game Two, and was again into the forty-minute range on Saturday, he has continued to chip in both on the offensive and defensive sides of the puck.

Hjalmarsson has been up to his old tricks, continuing to put his body first with his solid defensive play (save a terrible turnover in Game Four), while Oduya had the most spirited over-time periods of any Blackhawks’ defenders, coming close to scoring the game-winner himself.

Brent Seabrook has kind of taken a back seat throughout this series, with all the talk of Keith. He’s still the same #2 defender the Blackhawks’ need him to be; and with 47 minutes of his own in Game Two, he’s no slouch, either.

With the seven-game series now becoming a best-of-three, with (potentially) two games on the road in Anaheim, the Blackhawks will be in tough to deliver two more wins, (and in only three periods). However, this is the time of year that Keith, Seabrook, and Hjalmarsson live for. They will be ready.

Head Coach Joel Quenneville came under fire after lineup choices in Game Three, but as far as managing minutes goes, he is doing the best job with the tools at his disposal.

Duncan Keith has 33% more lung capacity than a normal human being. Him, #4, and #7 have two Stanley Cup rings already, and they are aware of the physical sacrifice necessary to lift the Stanley Cup overhead at the end of it all. Physically, the Blackhawks’ top-four will be just fine.

The mental battle is a much harder tale to tell. No one exactly knows what runs through the heads of those players, except for the players themselves, but there is no doubt it takes a toll on each and every player in the series, not just the Blackhawks’ blue-liners. In the next three* games, it will come down to desire, and experience.

If you’re watching the game tonight, however, remember that you don’t have an abnormal lung capacity, or the ability to resist such fatigue. Maybe a pre-game nap is in your best interest.

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