EDMONTON -- The life of a top NHL defenseman is never easy. Always on an island, their mistakes can be glaring while many nights their solid play goes unnoticed.
At first glance Chicago Blackhawks stalwarts Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook had poor games in Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to Vancouver, which kicked off Chicago's nine-game, post-all-star break road trip. Seabrook was on the ice for two goals against, Keith for all three.
“I was just trying to be good defensively and have a good gap and take away time and space,” Keith said after practice Wednesday in Edmonton. “Unfortunately I felt I was good defensively and I end up minus-2. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Keith was good defensively despite the negative rating. He passed the eye test, though it wasn’t a perfect game. Cody Hodgson got behind both players for a tying break-away goal in the third period then Daniel Sedin ended the game in overtime as he scored from in front of the Hawks net with Keith and Seabrook nearby.
“We’re on the ice a lot,” Keith stated. “We’re given that responsibility and we appreciate that and we enjoy it. With that you need to be good.”
They weren’t very good on those plays, but, on many others, they kept the Sedin twins in check. Keith, in particular, was as active on defense as he’s been all year. He killed plays before they happened and initiated the Hawks attack in the other direction. That’s when he’s at his best.
“You’re looking at the best tandem [the Sedins] in the league,” Joel Quenneville said. “They’re going to get opportunities and make plays but they were also out there for a ton of high quality opportunities that didn’t go in for us. I liked their game.”
Keith and Seabrook are plus-12 and 13 respectively. Good but still not at the level that helped win the Hawks a Stanley Cup two years ago. They each have just three goals on the season despite significant power-play time. But defense is what wins championships and Keith has been saying for a while he wants to concentrate on that part of his game.
On a beach in Mexico over the all-star break he thought about what lies ahead.
“I tried to get away a little bit and relax and let the body heal and be energized for this last stretch and playoffs,” he said. “But you definitely think about it in the back of your head and what you want to do and accomplish and how you want to play.”
Seabrook did the same. If there is any difference between a young player and a veteran it’s how the older player builds his game leading to the postseason. Many rookies just play every night like it’s their last. Veterans know there are more levels to attain as the season approaches springtime.
“We’re ready to play and do everything we can to help this team win,” Seabrook said. “That’s my main focus. To be the best I can be every night. This stretch is really going to define us as a team. We have 31 games left. It’s going to be a playoff style game every game going forward. We play a lot of the top teams. We’re going to have to be ready for it.”
Neither player is thrilled with the number of goals the Hawks have given up this season, but both stress that winning is all that matters. And the fact that they can’t do it alone. Defense isn’t just about the two blue-liners on the ice.
“Hockey is a team game” Keith said. “It’s not just one or two players but obviously I think goaltending is the most important position. You look at Tim Thomas, what he did for Boston last year. But it’s a team game.”
Seabrook added, “it helps when our defense is jumping up and helping our forwards out. Anything we can do to help them and vice versa.”
It was a trademark of the Hawks' championship team in 2010. Since then, there’s been a disconnect in terms of a total commitment to team defense. Rested and motivated, now is the time for the Hawks two defensive stars to take charge.
“We need them,” Quenneville said bluntly. “They are important pieces. We’ll be counting on them.”
As will Hawks’ fans. And the players themselves.
“I like playoff hockey and the next 30 games are going to be playoff hockey for us,” Seabrook said.
The Hawks have dropped two of three to Edmonton this season, including a 9-2 drubbing in November and a home loss in early January. In that game they blew a lead after Dan Carcillo delivered an illegal check on Tom Gilbert. As a result of the play Carcillo was suspended and suffered an injury.
“You definitely want to get some payback after the last two games, 9-2 and they beat us 4-3 in our own building,” Patrick Kane said “We’re excited to play , especially [coming off] last time. The fans were chanting ‘we want ten, we want ten’. Be nice to get a little payback.”
Rookie Andrew Shaw has led all forwards in ice time over the last two games but it’s not necessarily because Joel Quenneville is trusting him more than others.
“It’s a work in progress,” Quenneville said. “I think he could cut down his shifts. He’s out there a little bit long. But at the same time we like him out there.”
Quenneville is only half-right. Shaw had eight shifts of a minute or more in length while Jonathan Toews, by comparison, had just six. But Toews averaged 47 seconds per shift to Shaw’s 46. Shaw simply had more shifts, 28 compared to just 24 for the Hawks captain. So whether Quenneville realizes it or not he is trusting Shaw with more ice time. But when he does stay on the ice too long, someone has to tell him to get off.
“Sometimes me, sometimes the guy that wants to get out there for him,” Quenneville joked.
• The Hawks announced two time changes for upcoming games. Their contest against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Feb. 18 will start at noon CT instead of a 1 p.m. The next day, Feb. 19 they’ll host the St. Louis Blues at 11:30 a.m. on NBC-TV instead of the original 2 p.m. start time.