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Know Thy Enemy: Blackhawks Defense Preview

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The Anaheim Ducks will face their toughest test yet...pushing past the Blackhawks defense corps.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Pairings

Duncan Keith- Michal Rozsival David Rundblad

Kimmo Timonen - Brent Seabrook

Niklas Hjalmarsson - Johnny Oduya

Injuries of Defensemen

Michal Rozsival - Listed as out indefinitely after undergoing successful ankle surgery. (Fractured his ankle in Game 4 vs. Minnesota Wild)

How did their season go?

The tale of the Chicago Blackhawks were far from the Anaheim Ducks' Round 2 opponents. Once again, the Blackhawks were consistently dominant in their regular season.

Undoubtedly, the Chicago Blackhawks are most renowned for their offensive prowess. Rolling four forward lines headlined by the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Kane, the Hawks didn't have to claw their way into the playoffs unlike the Ducks' past two playoff opponents. But in addition to those highlight reeling forwards, the Hawks also boast some of NHL's most noteworthy defensemen.

During the regular season, while the Hawks on average allowed more than 30 shots per game, they also owned the league's second best goals against average at 2.26. They ranked 22nd in the league in blocked shots with an average of 24.1 (Ducks ranked 14th with 25.7).

Safe to say, while the Ducks didn't struggle too immensely in the match up against the Winnipeg Jets and the Calgary Flames, Chicago is an entirely different beast. In the recent years, the Hawks dominated possession in games between the two teams. This past season, the Chicago Blackhawks took two of the three games (Ducks 1-0, Hawks 4-1, Hawks 4-1). The speedy combination of active blue liners and the relentless forecheck by all four lines has been key to outplaying the heavy-hard-hitting Anaheim Ducks.

Despite having the likes of Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook on the blue line, the defense presents a potential weak spot. The fact that Quenneville split Keith's longtime partner Seabrook to balance the defense shows that this team's defensecorps is not exactly the same as the 2013 Stanley Cup winning (or even last year's) defense corps. Though the organization brought Kimmo Timonen at the trade deadline to be the stay-at-home defensive support, he saw very limited minutes leaving the bulk of the back-end work to fall upon the shoulders of the above three.

Stats vs. Ducks

Player Games vs. Ducks Goals Assists Points FF% (5v5 Close)
Duncan Keith 3 1 1 2 54.11
Kimmo Timonen 0 NA NA NA 43.19
Brent Seabrook 3 0 1 1 51.94
Niklas Hjalmarsson 3 0 0 0 52.73
Johnny Odyua 3 0 1 1 51.26
David Rundblad 2 0 0 0 52.12
Michal Rozsival 3 0 0 0 51.69








Top Three Threats to Anaheim

1) The top defensive threat is without question DUNCAN KEITH. Keith is a Conn Smythe candidate for a very good reason. As one of the best all-around defensemen, Keith will be the Blackhawks' X-factor in this series. He leads all defensemen in the post-season with 10 points (2 goals and 8 assists), a +10 rating, and currently holds the highest average time-on-ice among active playoff players with 30:37. If this weren't enough, he holds a 53.78% Fenwick and 56.33% Corsi.

He is versatile without question. His ability to quickly transition off strong defensive plays on the forecheck sparks odd man rush attempts in Chicago's favor. Oh, and while he usually is the one dishing out helpers, he can also occasionally score.

Now that Rozsival is out and Rundblad is in, you can look to Keith to shoulder even more important minutes on the ice to balance out the defense. Unfortunately, even at playing more than half the game, he bears no sign of wearing out.

2) SPEED - While the past two rounds of this year's playoffs have been pretty even match ups between systems, the Ducks' match up against the Blackhawks will be beastly. The Blackhawks are statistically among the smallest teams in the league, thereby looking to pure speed and skill to out-manuever the Ducks. Fortunately, the Ducks are by no means only a big and physical team because they have the ability to play with speed and skill. But the key here is to not get caught up in the speed vs. physical match-up.

The Blackhawks have perfected the system of carrying the puck and gaining momentum through the neutral zone while looking for the stretch pass to feed open forwards. But every time the Ducks attempt to counter this system with only physical play, they end up looking flat-footed. And even worse, the Blackhawks do what they do best, deny entries early on and quickly transition out for the odd man rush attempt.

Because the Hawks' strong defensive play on the forecheck is key to sparking quick breakouts into their offensive zone, the Ducks will have to be particularly diligent in watching the aggressive attempts by the blue liners who are quick to join the rush and pinch along the boards.

3) Brent Seabrook is a dark horse that can be overshadowed by Duncan Keith. He has a knack for scoring playoff goals.

Top Three Ways to Beat the Blackhawks' Defense

1) Wear down the top four defensemen and exploit the lack of defensive depth. While the Blackhawks defense fares far better than the Calgary defense, they do face the same conundrum of lacking depth. Currently, Duncan Keith on average, skates more than half the game, clocking in 30:37 time-on-ice. The other three defensemen (Seabrook, Hjalmarrsson, and Oduya) all average more than 24 minutes each. The loss of Michal Rozsival is a big one as there is now a gap of 17:26 that needs to be covered. While it sounds like David Rundblad is the go-to guy to replace Rozsival's spot on the blue line, Quenneville has come out saying that he will carefully monitor the 24-year-old's minutes.

That means more of those Rozsival minutes will be added to Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarrsson and Oduya. And if the Ducks use their size to their advantage along the boards, they are bound to do some damage.

2)  Limit Duncan Keith by neutralizing David Rundblad. One of the advantages against this year's Duncan Keith from last year's Duncan Keith is his change in defense partner. The Keith-Seabrook pairing is one of envy. But in order to achieve more balanced defensive lines, Queneville was forced to split the two and pair Keith with the stay-at-home albeit dependable Rozsival.

Now that Rozsival is out, Rundblad will be making his playoff debut against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Final. Although Rundblad played in and out of the regular season, he mostly played protected minutes starting only 20.6% of his shifts in the defensive zone. From his regular season games, the upside seems to be his offensive production while the downside his shaky defensive game. Since he would be stepping in as the d-partner of Keith, he will be challenged as he will most likely be facing against the Getzlaf-Perry line or the Kesler-Silfverberg line.

With all this being said, neutralizing Rundblad would a) giving the Ducks forwards odd man rush opportunities, and b) would be the most effective way to limiting Keith's own production. Keith will have to be more careful on the pinches.

3) The Ducks are well known for both their size as well as their ability to skate. So instead of purely combating the speedy with bumps and bruises, the Ducks need to find a way to utilize their size and grit to slow down the speed of the Hawks while establishing a game pace more conducive to their system. Use size along the boards, but quickly breakout and attack aggressively to push the puck ahead and force the Blackhawks defense to pull back from the neutral zone.

As we all know, and dread, the Blackhawks defense is particularly good transitioning. The defensemen are aggressive to pinch along the boards and quickly find an open stretch pass across the neutral zone. They often advance forward to join the attack in the offensive zone. Because the Hawks are so aggressive on the attack this will frequently result in the forwards failing to fall back and cover. Anaheim can look to these opportunities to force turnovers at the blue line for odd man rushes.

Interestingly, Kane's line is particularly least consistent in maintaining support in the back end. Ducks backchecking will have to look to exploit these particular opportunities.