Leading up to Wednesday's Game 1, Puck Daddy is previewing every facet of the Stanley Cup Final between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Tampa Bay Lightning— on the ice and off the ice.
Three Blackhawks defenseman were on the 2010 Stanley Cup team. Four (five if you want to count the injured Michal Rozsival) were on the squad that shocked the Boston Bruins in Game 6 in 2013. It’s a veteran group; one that has won together and been through the postseason grind on numerous occasions.
Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are the leaders of the Chicago blueline, with Keith turning into a cyborg this postseason and averaging 31:26 of ice time through 17 games. He also leads the Blackhawks in scoring from the back and is tied for second overall on the team with 18 points. Seabrook leads the defense with six goals and has also been somewhat of a workhorse averaging 26:21 of ice per game. The two also lead the team in Score-Adjusted Corsi-For Percentage, according to War on Ice, with 55.65-percent and 54.23-percent, respectively.
Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson have seen their minutes rise (over 25 a night) as they handle heavy starts in the defensive zone.
The entire top four of Chicago’s defense has had to work extra because their third pairing has been the weak link. Losing Rozsival for the playoffs threw a monkey wrench into Joel Quenneville’s pairings and with the poor play of 40-year old Kimmo Timonen, help was needed. So far, Timonen, David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey have had turns together, but only Cuminskey has played more than 10 minutes a night on average. Trevor van Riemsdyk, who's yet to play this postseason, is on standby.
These playoffs haven’t been Victor Hedman’s coming out party. He’s been playing at an elite level for some time now; it’s just that with Tampa’s postseason success more and more eyes have been on the Lightning. He’s been one of their better possession players (54.45 Score-Adjusted Corsi-For percentage, via War on Ice), chipped in offensively (9 assists) and been a key cog on special teams where he averaged over two-and-a-half minutes per game on the power play and shorthanded units.
Right alongside Hedman is Anton Stralman, a possession darling, who the New York Rangers wished they would have found a way to keep him last summer. Tampa’s other Swedish defenseman also plays a big role on both special teams units and contributes offensively, most notably with a pair of beautiful assists in Games 5 and 6 in the conference final.
After the top pairing, the minutes get handed out a little more evenly with Jon Cooper going with seven defensemen for most of the Eastern Conference Final. Jason Garrison and trade deadline pickup Braydon Coburn have not been good possession-wise and have had trouble escaping their own zone. Their score-adjusted Corsi numbers hover near 40-percent, and considering Chicago’s scoring depth, that could be an issue for the Lightning.
Nikita Nesterov, Matt Carle and Andrej Sustr round out the group. Nesterov has watched most of his starts come in the offensive zone, thereby helping him to nice possession numbers so far. Carle hasn’t had a good postseason and Sustr doesn’t play a physical game which, while that style may not wear down the Blackhawks like Anaheim thought it out, could slow them down at least.
We saw Quenneville break up the Keith/Seabrook duo versus the Ducks to help out out the other pairings. Could Cooper think to do that as well with his top guys?
Advantage: Chicago. The experience is there. The talent is there. And they’ve been able to help carry the Blackhawks through three rounds despite a third pairing carousel. And for all the talk that the high number of minutes will catch up to them, specifically Duncan Keith, there are two full days off between Games 1 and 2 and 4 and 5. More than enough time to relax and rejuvenate.
Keith put it perfectly after Game 7 versus the Ducks: ”I don't think anybody's tired this time of year.”
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