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Blackhawks' top four defensemen not fazed by playing huge minutes

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Hjalmarsson: 'It's going to be a tough game"

Scott Burnside speaks with Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson about what to expect in Saturday's Game 7 of the Western Conference finals against the Anaheim Ducks.

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Niklas Hjalmarsson, Duncan Keith, Johnny Oduya and Brent Seabrook won't challenge their bodies again as much as they have in this year’s Western Conference finals.

The Chicago Blackhawks' top four defensemen have put their bodies to the test extensively against the Anaheim Ducks. The four have combined for more than 725 minutes, which equates to 86 percent of the minutes for the team’s defensemen in the series, and they have yet to play Game 7.

They’ve also been the primary targets for the Ducks’ physical play and have been subjected to 121 total hits in the six games.

The four defensemen, like any hockey player at this time of year, won’t divulge just how much of a toll those minutes and hits have taken on their bodies. Instead, they have let their play speak. Despite all the ice time and the hits absorbed, Hjalmarsson, Keith, Oduya and Seabrook have maintained consistency and been a major reason why the Blackhawks are one win away from returning to the Stanley Cup finals.

“You look at our D corps, it's probably one of the strongest parts of our team,” Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said on Friday. “We know they've been playing a lot of minutes, but I think they kind of relish that opportunity. They have been doing fine with it. Don't see any times of them slowing up or having any repercussions from playing those minutes.

"So, I think they're accustomed to it, and they've been huge for us back there. I'm sure something they'll expect to do again [in Game 7].”

The four defensemen have always received the bulk of coach Joel Quenneville’s minutes, but this series has taken it to the extreme. Quenneville became even more reliant on them since Michal Rozsival fractured his ankle against the Minnesota Wild in the the team's final game of the second round.

Rozsival averaged 18-plus minutes through the first nine games of the postseason and was allowing the top four defensemen to get breathers. When he went down, there wasn’t a defenseman behind him whom Quenneville had complete trust in. Kimmo Timonen was playing every game, but was often playing fewer than 10 minutes. David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey have also seen limited ice time when they have been in the lineup.

Timonen, Rundblad and Cumiskey have gotten 116:05 of combined ice time in the Western Conference finals. In Game 6 on Wednesday, Rundblad and Cumiskey combined for 13:28 of ice time. That's expected to be the case again in Game 7 on Saturday.

The top four defensemen swear they don’t mind all the ice time. Keith is leading the way in the series with an average of 33:50 per game, followed by Seabrook at 30:22, Hjalmarsson at 29:43 and Oduya at 27:08.

“I think we welcome the opportunity getting out there and helping the team out as much as we can,” Seabrook said on Friday. “Obviously, some of our games have gone pretty long, so we've played a lot of minutes. But, you know, all the guys are looking forward to getting out there, you want to be out there in those situations.”

The numbers have been inflated some by a series that has included three overtime games. In the Blackhawks’ triple-overtime win in Game 2, Keith played 49:51, Seabrook 47:46, Hjalmarsson 47:35 and Oduya 46:06.

In that 3-2 win, and for much of the rest of the series, the four have been able to help the Blackhawks score more than they have been scored upon. Hjalmarsson is the only one of the group who has a negative goal differential in 5-on-5 play. He’s been on the ice for seven Blackhawks goals and 10 for the Ducks. Seabrook has a plus-3 differential (10-7), Keith is plus-1 (11-10) and Oduya is plus-1 (6-5).

“I think the one thing that makes them good defensemen is the consistency of their play,” Quenneville said. “I find as a defenseman, the more you play, the better you play. I think some guys get too many minutes, their play will go the other way.

“I could look back over some of the defense history, a lot of teams used to go four and five, just play your four. Now the game is so fast that you usually spread them out a little more evenly. In this situation, these guys, they're handling it like they like it.”

The other substantial factor in the series has been the physical play of the Ducks. They came into the series knowing the Blackhawks would be relying heavily on four defensemen and have made a concentrated effort to finish their checks and make the game hard on them.

The Ducks are confident that plan will pay off in the end.

“We're just going to keep with our game plan,” Ducks forward Ryan Kesler said earlier in the series. “I think it will wear them down. It's going to wear them down. No human can withstand that many hits. We're going to keep banging out there and going after them.”

Game 7 could be a different story, but the Blackhawks are withstanding those hits so far. Hjalmarsson has taken 44 hits, which is 16 more than any other Blackhawk in the series, and has said numerous times during the series he feels just fine.

“They hit hard, but they hit pretty clean,” Hjalmarsson said. “It's just a matter of getting back up and focusing on the next shift.”

And with the Blackhawks’ top defensemen playing as much as they have in the series, they don't have to wait long until that next shift.