One of the nicest compliments you can pay a defense corps is to say you didn’t notice it. Carolina has rode that wave for most of the playoffs, with the exception of the minute-munching Joni Pitkanen, who has garnered personal accolades on an otherwise understated Canes blueline.
Similarly, the Penguins are largely lunch pail on the back end, notwithstanding the soldiering on by offensively gifted Sergei Gonchar and the occasional flashy heroics of Kris Letang.
In Detroit, of course, excellence practically spills out over the bench. How can you not notice future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom or slick puck wizard Brian Rafalski? Opponents certainly know when Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart are around, too.
But in Chicago, a much-vaunted defense is going through some growing pains in the playoffs. This is natural, of course: Only two of the Hawks’ top six defensemen have played in the NHL post-season prior to this year and one of them is Matt Walker, whose experience was limited to four games with the Blues in 2003-04.
But for all the hype this generally young group has gotten, it may be a little early to bestow any future honors upon them.
Duncan Keith, for one, had a breakout season for Chicago, with the fourth-best plus-minus in the NHL at plus-33 and 44 points in 77 games, good for a career-high. But so far in the playoffs, Keith has had an up-and-down ride. At plus-1, he currently ranks 72nd in the league – and his team is still playing games, so you would think his rating would be higher.
The stakes are higher in the post-season and Keith is getting a crash course. In Game 2 against Detroit, he was victimized on Dan Cleary’s goal (giving the Wings a 2-1 lead at the time) when the Red Wings vet blew past him after a faceoff. Cleary’s lane to the puck was so unimpeded, it’s hard to imagine what happened to Keith, other than getting caught napping.
Statistically, Keith’s giveaways-to-takeaways ratio in the playoffs has actually been respectable. He does lead Chicago in giveaways with 13, but has augmented that with 10 takeaways, putting him in the same company as players such as Evgeni Malkin and Marian Hossa, whose heavy puck-carrying load must be considered in this category.
But for a player whose name was mentioned in both Norris Trophy and Canadian Olympic team conversations this year, Keith seems to be getting burned at the most inopportune times lately.
Another Hawk blueliner who was clipped by the Wings in Game 2 was Brian Campbell, who, ironically, is the senior member of the corps. Campbell was effective pushing the puck up the ice in his typically excellent way, but on the most important goal of the game – the Mikael Samuelsson tally in overtime – it was Campbell who coughed the puck up, leading to the fateful 3-on-1 Detroit rush.
Having gone on deep (yet ultimately unsuccessful) runs with Buffalo and San Jose in playoffs past, Campbell can’t afford to make such mistakes as the veteran on a green blueline. Detroit is a team that eats up turnovers and when Chicago’s defense gets back to the friendly confines of the United Center, the gaffes must end for this series to swing around.
THN.com’s Playoff Blogs, featuring analysis and opinion on the action from the night before, with insight on what happened and what it all means going forward, will appear daily throughout the NHL playoffs. Read more entries HERE.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column – The Straight Edge – every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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