While the series may have been locked at 1-1 heading into Wednesday night’s game, another matchup was a lopsided advantage for the Ducks: hits. The Ducks outhit the Blackhawks 115-79 through two games, and it was not done by accident.
Last night, the trend continued as the Ducks outhit the Blackhawks 45-27 as the Ducks took a 2-1 lead in the series, forcing a near must-win for the Blackhawks at home in Game 4.
The Ducks have made a conscious effort to finish their checks against the Blackhawks whenever possible, especially against their defensive corps. The Ducks boast the heaviest team in the NHL (210 avg.), and ninth tallest (6’3.5″), making them an extremely difficult team to play against.
The Ducks wear their opponents down with their physicality, and then beat them with skill on the cycle. If you’re going to beat the Ducks, you need to avoid their hits and prevent your defense from wearing down against them. However, the Blackhawks are doing the exact opposite of that with the usage of their defensemen.
A Top-Heavy Defense
The Blackhawks have been relying heavily upon their top four defensemen so far in the playoffs, and for good reason. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Johnny Oduya comprise arguably the best top 4 in the NHL. However, Joel Quenneville has gone overboard with their usage, and it is going to backfire soon.
They have received a historically large share of the minutes these playoffs because, frankly, Quenneville doesn’t trust his bottom pairing. Kimmo Timonen was brought in at the deadline at the cost of a few draft picks, despite not playing a single game before being acquired.
He looked slow at first, but that was chalked up to rust that would be soon knocked off. Fast forward two months, and it appears that rust may be permanent as Timonen has looked slow and ineffective.
He was supposed to be paired with Michal Rozsival, but Roszival was lost to injury in the second round. That forced a platoon of David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey into action at #6. Both are mobile and can move the puck, but are not capable of defending effectively against the big and powerful Ducks offense.
As a result, the bottom pairing has played a historically sparse amount through three games.
Running Them Ragged
The Blackhawks are utilizing their top 4 at a nearly unprecedented level. Below is a chart that shows how every Stanley Cup champion since 2005-06 has utilized their defensemen in the playoffs. The percentages are the percentage of total minutes played by the top 4 divided by the total minutes played by defensemen on that team in the playoffs.
As you can see, only one Stanley Cup Champion has utilized their top 4 as much as the Blackhawks have these playoffs. With all due respect to the Blackhawks’ top 4, it’s nowhere near that Ducks’ squad. That defense had two of the three best defensemen in the league on it, as Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger finished 2nd and 3rd in Norris Trophy voting that season. Those two, with Francois Beauchemin, all averaged nearly 30 minutes per game.
Simply put, riding your defensemen this much will lead to them getting tired out before you can win a Cup. They’re not the 2006-07 Ducks. And in this series, the percentage has been even more extreme at over 85%.
Among teams that lost in the Stanley Cup Finals since 2005-06, the only team to ride their top 4 harder was the 2009-10 Flyers (Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle) at 86.1%. I would wager that they were better at the time than Chicago’s group now.
Philadelphia’s opponent that year? Chicago. Joel Quenneville has seen firsthand what riding your defensemen ragged can do to their effectiveness. By the end of that series, Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen’s effectiveness was noticeably diminished compared to earlier in the postseason.
Down 2-1 in the series, Quenneville may have no choice but to continue to ride the top 4. After Game 2, Niklas Hjalmarsson claimed he was feeling fine:
“Yeah, [that] was a lot of minutes last game,” Hjalmarsson said. “But we won the game, and we move on from there, start focusing on [the] next game. Personally, I feel fine. I have no complaints.”
Quenneville also pointed out the Blackhawks just had a significant layoff that allowed them to rest up:
“We just had 10 days off, so I feel pretty good about it,” Joel Quenneville said. “I mean, their defense played just about as many minutes as [Keith, Hjalmarsson and Seabrook]. They’re playing hockey. There’s enough recovery time.”
It is the playoffs, and everyone is playing tired and injured. However, the Blackhawks defense is playing that much more tired than their opponents. And it will be their downfall.