CHICAGO — It’s not every day that a 40-year-old NHL veteran gets his big break. But after sitting out Chicago’s last five postseason games and watching his Stanley Cup dream take shape while dressed in a suit, Blackhawks defenseman Kimmo Timonen got the nod for Game 4 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. As he strode out of the United Center on Wednesday afternoon, knowing he would be back to play later that night in a crucial game his team needs to win, he wore the small smile he held through 10 minutes of questions with reporters after the Blackhawks’ morning skate.
“I’m really excited,” Timonen said. “I’m obviously going to trust my experience and my instincts and try to help the team as good as I can. It feels great, though. I can’t lie to you.”
Since being taken out of the lineup after Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, Timonen has played the good soldier, practiced well and given Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville little reason not to at least give him a shot. No one will pretend that Timonen, who played limited minutes in just 31 games all season (postseason included), is the same player he was in his prime with the Nashville Predators and Philadelphia Flyers. He missed most of this season recovering from a pulmonary embolism, caused by blood clots that traveled to his lungs last August, and he has lost a great deal of the speed and mobility that defined his game. Against Anaheim’s crushing set of forwards in the West finals, it quickly became an issue.
But even now, Timonen does offer two things that Quenneville values at this point: experience and predictability. “His coverage in the defensive zone, strength in the puck area,” Quenneville said, “he’s smart…. He reads [the play] and his position awareness and coverage in his own end will help him.”
It will be invaluable to Chicago, too, given the unpredictability of bottom pair defensemen David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey. In his favor, Timonen can still think and process the game like the 17-year veteran he is.
He, too, knows what it’s like to play here on the NHL’s biggest stage. He has been in this position—in almost exactly this position—before. Five years ago, Timonen was playing at the United Center in the Cup final, only he was a member of the Flyers taking on the up-and-coming Blackhawks. He was averaging more than 26 minutes each night, mentoring and bringing up Philadelphia’s young defense corps (which, incidentally, included now-Lightning blueliners Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle).
In that series, Chicago’s talented young forwards spoiled Timonen’s Cup dream by beating Philadelphia in six games. Now he will rely on them to see it finally come to fruition. Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane, who swept in the famous Game 6 winner in 2010, could hold the key to Chicago’s success. Though he leads the Blackhawks with 20 points this postseason, the shifty winger hasn’t scored yet in this series. Though he skated with Jonathan Toews during the first two games, Tampa Bay’s defense had done an exquisite job of shutting them down. But even after Quenneville separated his stars, Kane has struggled to get away from Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman.
The big-bodied Swedish blueliner has said he tries to model himself after Sweden’s model defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom. Incidentally, Lidstrom happens to be one of the players who most vexed the shifty Kane. For years, when Chicago and Detroit lined up for frequent divisional matchups, Kane knew those could be frustrating nights. Kane once said the day Lidstrom retires would be a happy day for him. The Hall of Famer retired in May 2012, but unfortunately for Kane, an army of Swedish blueliners have followed—none more impressive right now than the 24-year-old Hedman.
But if Kane can rediscover some space on the ice, get away from the long reach of Hedman’s stick, everything can change for him (and by extension Chicago) in an instant. And that’s what the Blackhawks and Kimmo Timonen will hope for on Wednesday night.