How Chicago’s Big Four Powered Hawks to Cup Win

Four defensemen.

Duncan Keith. Brent Seabrook. Johnny Oduya. Niklas Hjalmarsson. That was all the Chicago Blackhawks needed on the backend to capture their third Stanley Cup in six seasons. The Hawks are flush with talent and depth up front, but the story of this Stanley Cup championship isn’t goaltending or Patrick Kane or even Jonathan Toews. It is a defensive core doing things that haven’t been seen since the lockout outside of Chris Pronger.

Championships are generally won with depth scoring and depth on the backend. Outside of the Chris Pronger/Scott Niedermayer Anaheim Ducks of 2006-07, no Stanley Cup championship team has relied on their top four defensemen to play over 80% of all defensive minutes during the playoffs.

Data courtesy of war-on-ice.com. Forward/Defensemen not included.

Five teams have played 20-plus playoff games and had their top four log over 80% of the minutes . Three of those teams were anchored by Chris Pronger with the highest registered percentage at close to 86% by the 2009-10 Philadelphia Flyers.

Looking back at the previous Chicago teams who enjoyed deep playoff runs, they never cleared the 75% mark with the 2009-10 Cup champions only relying on their top four for 70% of the minutes played.

While reviewing Chicago’s shot totals, I isolated all the shots that occurred without one of the Blackhawks’ Big 4 on the ice. Of the close to 1,500 shot events I tracked, the Big 4 were not on the ice for seven shot events! The impact these four players had were instrumental in the Blackhawks championship.

The minute Michal Rozsival went down to injury, the Hawks appeared to be in big trouble. But when I looked into Duncan Keith’s production, the only negative expected goal differential he had throughout the entire playoffs was when he was paired with Rozsival.

Through two rounds, Keith was producing offensively overall, but not creating at a dominant rate while paired with Rozsvial. This changed when he went down to injury late in the series vs. the Wild.

Last week I looked at how dominant Hedman had been for the Lightning and compared him to Keith. When we add in the context of Keith playing minutes that put him in the class of one of the elite defensemen of his generation like Pronger, we can see why he was deserving of the Conn Smythe trophy.

When we look at his production away from Rozsival, it is closer to the dominant production of Hedman.

Keith should have been winding down due to the marathon of 30-minute nights of wear and tear in the playoffs, but he somehow got better. Through the first two rounds, where he spent a ton of time with Rozsival, his expected goal differential percentage was .463. Through the final two rounds vs. two of the best offensive teams in the NHL, he produced a rate of .592.

An incredible performance by Keith that highlights how important his contributions have been to this Blackhawks championship run.


A LITTLE CUP LUCK

One of the things that fans seem to struggle with is the appropriation of luck during a Stanley Cup run. It tends to be rejected because the term implies that success was not determined by individual greatness and superiority, but in a game as chaotic as hockey, bounces, posts, injuries can determine an outcome when teams are so tightly matched.

The Hawks could be working on a third consecutive Stanley Cup had one break in overtime gone their way last season vs. the Los Angeles Kings. They could also be pondering breaking up their current roster if Scott Darling hadn’t channeled his inner Henrik Lundqvist in round one.

Every series has these 50/50 plays and the Stanley Cup Final was no different: 1) The Lightning missing a breakaway minutes before the Hawks burying two late goals to steal Game 1, 2) Hossa missing an empty net in Game 3 that the Hawks would go on to lose, 3) Brent Seabrook getting the shaft of his stick on a gimmie Stamkos empty net in Game 4 that would have forced overtime.

This Cup Final was up in the air until the Ben Bishop brain cramp in Game 5. After that goal, the Hawks controlled play and showed their superiority.

Through four games, the Cup Final was a toss up. The Hawks had a slight expected goal differential advantage and they carried the play for the most part after the series moved to Chicago. But through the completion of Game 4, it was fitting that the series was tied at 2-2.

After Patrick Sharp slipped by the colliding Bishop and Hedman to place the puck into the empty net to give the Hawks a 1-0 lead in Game 5, they never trailed in the series again and really took the play to the Lightning.

A Stanley Cup is never decided on one play. Even a Game 7 overtime winner is the result of thousands of events that lead to the teams being tied at 3 games apiece. But when the margin of error is so thin, one miscue can be the difference between fulfilling a lifelong dream or watching it slip through your fingers.

The Blackhawks were the better team and deserving champions. As a Lightning fan, there were plenty of missed opportunities that would cause a loss of sleep and the knowledge that a couple of breaks could have reversed the outcome.