Defense now a matter of trust for Blackhawks in Western finals
It was just one test out of a possible seven, but after opener of the Western Conference Final Anaheim's Bruce Boudreau made it clear that he had full faith in the abilities of his young defense corps.
"I think with their minutes, with their responsibilities now, there's not a fear of putting any one of them into any situation that comes," the Ducks coach said on Monday.
He proved that in Game 1, spreading out the ice time over all six defenders. Every man saw time on the penalty kill and only Simon Despres saw less than 17 minutes of action (15:46). As a group, they responded with a bend-but-don't-break effort that keyed Anaheim's 4-1 win.
That ability to rely on all six men does not carry over to the Blackhawks.
It’s no secret that Chicago has a hole to fill on the back end after losing Michal Rozsival to a broken ankle at the end of the second round. Despite some obvious flaws in his game, the veteran blueliner had at least one thing going for him: the trust of Joel Quenneville.
That’s something the Hawks coach offers sparingly to his defensemen. And it can quickly be revoked.
Quenneville turned to former first-rounder David Rundblad to replace some of Rozsival’s minutes in Game 1. It did not go well. The 24-year-old was given just seven minutes of ice during the first two periods and made mistakes that led directly to Anaheim’s first two goals. To be fair, it was exactly the sort of performance that should have been expected from someone who hadn’t played since April 11, but no matter. It may end up being the last time that Rundblad is seen this spring. He’s expected to be replaced tonight by Kyle Cumiskey. A smaller player who relies heavily on his speed, Cumiskey will be a tougher target for Anaheim’s marauding forecheckers to hit and he might help with Chicago’s transition game.
Or maybe he’ll be exposed as quickly as Rundblad was. And if he is, you can’t blame him either. Cumiskey played just seven games with the Hawks during the regular season, most recently on Feb. 27—yes, nearly three months ago—when he skated 17 minutes against the Lightning. He has some playoff experience, but it’s probably not the kind anyone would want on the back of his hockey card: one goal, two points and a –7 rating in six games with the Avalanche back in 2010.
But Cumiskey seems to be Quenneville’s only option since he all but refuses to play Kimmo Timonen. Sure, the 40-year-old blueliner has lost a step after dealing with some long-term blood clot issues, but he was a No. 1 with Philadelphia just last season. His experience alone should merit more than the five minutes he was given in Game 1. Even Hamburger Helper gets more respect than that.
That could—and should—change tonight. It’s clear that Quenneville will try to stretch his top four of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson as far as he can, but they need some help if they’re going to survive this series. The Ducks drove Chicago’s defensemen into the boards at every opportunity in Game 1, with Hjalmarsson alone being targeted nine times. The toll was clear every time they skated back to the bench.
That’s not the first time they’ve faced this kind of punishment, but three or four games of that abuse combined with the heavy workload and pressures of handling Anaheim’s heavy cycle could leave them gassed and vulnerable in the latter stages of this series ... unless Quenneville extends the circle of trust.
The numbers game
• The Ducks are 5-0 when they score first during postseason play this year, and 6-0 at home where they’ve outscored their opponents by 22-7.
• On Monday night, Tampa Bay’s Tyler Johnson became the first player in franchise history to score a shorthanded and a power-play goal in the same period of a playoff game since Claude Giroux of the Flyers on April 13, 2013 vs. the Penguins. Johnson is also the first to achieve the feat in the first period of a postseason game since Bruins forward Rick Middleton on April 20, 1983 vs. the Sabres. Thanks to Johnson’s heroics, the Lightning are now 6-2-0 in their last eight games against the Rangers, and 4-1-0 at Madison Square Garden, dating back to Nov. 25, 2013 (including the regular season as well as the playoffs).
• Lightning goalie Ben Bishop is now 9-1-0 in 10 career games against the Rangers, including the regular season and playoffs.
• Mike Babcock is done speaking with other teams. All that's left now is to decide where he'll coach next season. That announcement is expected to come on Wednesday.
• It takes a particular set of skills to steal Steven Stamkos’s stick.
• The Bruins are looking to their past as they prepare for the future.
• No, the Canadiens can’t match up the firepower of division rival Tampa but that doesn't mean GM Marc Bergevin will blow up the team in an effort to catch up.
• The Russian Hockey Federation faces sanctions after members of its national team left the ice before the playing of “O Canada” at the World Championships. Can’t imagine those will amount to anything more than a slap on the wrist, but at least the Russians are being called out for their sorry behavior.