The Chicago Blackhawks needed a big effort from their defensive unit with Duncan Keith under suspension for Game 4 of the Western Conference Final. Led by Niklas Hjalmarsson, the Blackhawks got such an effort.
Chicago bested the Kings 3-2 Thursday night to take a 3-1 series lead coming back to the United Center Saturday. Bryan Bickell provided the muscle up front and Marian Hossa contributed a clutch third-period goal. However, props have to be given to the blue line, which stepped up on a night that absolutely required it.
Coach Joel Quenneville leaned heavily on four skaters on the back end. Sheldon Brookbank was used sparingly, as was Nick Leddy. Brookbank hadn't logged minutes in the postseason and it showed. He did look comfortable when he had the puck in the Chicago zone, though.
The pairing of Johnny Oduya and Michal Rozsival just may have been the difference in the contest for the 'Hawks. The two veterans played 22:54 and 25:28, respectively, and withstood the pressure in their own zone all evening long.
I thought Oduya, in particular, stepped up his game and played with a lot of composure. Scooping up a loose puck at his own blue line, Oduya got the ball rolling on the game-winning goal early in the final frame.
As for Niklas Hjalmarsson, the guy was all over the place, making little plays that kept the Kings off balance. Hjalmarsson also assisted on the first two Chicago goals. Paired again with a hard-working Brent Seabrook in the absence of Keith, Hjalmarsson led the 'Hawks with 4:22 on the penalty kill.
All told, the Blackhawks defense helped limit the Kings to 21 shots on Corey Crawford. Chicago's goalie turned away several breakaway attempts to set up his team's rally. His poke check of Justin Williams' attempt with Los Angeles up 2-1 was crucial to the 'Hawks staying in the game.
Up 3-2 and facing what should have been a desperate Kings team in the final 19 minutes, Chicago gave up just two shots on goal the rest of the way. That included the 'Hawks killing a penalty.
Keith rejoins the lineup Saturday as the Blackhawks try to close out the Kings in five games. Chicago got the big goals Thursday. However, don't sell the defense short for propelling the 'Hawks to the Game 4 triumph. The back end was instrumental in setting up the elimination contest that is Game 5.