Throughout the postseason, one of the most intriguing storylines has been whether or not the Chicago Blackhawks’ lack of defensive depth would ultimately cost them on the sport’s biggest stage.
In their series against the Anaheim Ducks, the Blackhawks withstood the barrage of brute physicality and speed that their opponent was able to throw at them, and by the end of the series it was Anaheim, not Chicago, that looked more spent and exhausted from the style of play that the Western Conference Final featured.
Even with that victory, there is still some cause for concern as the Hawks move forward into the Stanley Cup Final. Players like Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook appear to be inhuman and don’t seem to mind playing a million minutes per game, but will that same principle hold true when discussing guys like Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson?
Some would argue that the potential return of Trevor van Riemsdyk will lessen the burden on the Hawks’ third and fourth defensemen, but is that really something that Joel Quenneville will be banking on? After all, van Riemsdyk hasn’t played in an NHL game since November, and he only recently began skating again after suffering a wrist injury during his rehab for a broken kneecap. It’s highly unlikely that he’s ready to go full bore again, and asking him to play meaningful minutes in a Stanley Cup Final seems like a tall order.
On the other side of the ice, the Lightning bring a more balanced approach to defense, albeit with less star power than the Blackhawks possess. Their top pairing of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman has been positively lethal so far in the postseason, with the duo combining shutdown defense with two goals and 15 assists on offense. Jason Garrison has also seen a decent amount of ice time, averaging nearly 20 minutes per game, but outside of those three, the Lightning aren’t overly reliant on anyone on their blue line.
Where the Lightning will hold an advantage over the Blackhawks is in shot suppression. So far in the postseason, the Bolts are only allowing 28 shots on goal per game, and that has really helped Ben Bishop settle into the crease as the playoffs have worn on. On the other side of the matchup, the Blackhawks are one of the league’s worst teams in terms of shots allowed, giving up 36.9 shots per game.
That number ranks them ahead of just the Ottawa Senators in that category, and while one can argue that the Blackhawks’ large number of multiple-overtime games play into that, the fact remains that they aren’t limiting shot totals in the way that we’re used to seeing.
Even with that in mind, we’re still giving the defensive edge to Chicago. Tampa Bay will not punish the Blackhawks’ defensemen in the way that the Ducks did in the Western Conference Final, and with several extra rest days built into the Stanley Cup Final schedule, the Hawks should be able to throw out guys like Keith and Seabrook as often as they like without fear that they’ll wear the players down.