The surprise in Game 1 wasn't that the Chicago Blackhawks managed to shut down the Los Angeles Kings' top line of Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik and Dustin Brown. The surprise was that they managed to do it without using Duncan Keith.
Keith led the Blackhawks in time on ice at even strength and ranked second in total time on ice, but Joel Quenneville's staff chose to employ him and partner Brent Seabrook against other lines, leaving the pairing of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya to handle the Kings' offensive stars.
Despite this, the Kopitar line didn't generate all that much for Los Angeles:
It was obviously a deliberate choice by Quenneville, who made his respect for the Kings' No. 1 line clear in his postgame availability when he was asked about the difficulty of defending against them.
"That's going to be a work in progress, it's going to be a challenge game in and game-out," he told reporters. "They've got three nice players that all complement one another, and they're dangerous. Every time they touch the puck, every time they're on the ice you've got to be aware."
It's easy to spot the matchups that Chicago was pursuing when we look at the percentage of total five-on-five ice time each defence pair spent against the various Los Angeles centres:
|Percentage of time on ice spent against each L.A. line|
|Los Angeles Line||Keith/Seabrook||Hjalmarsson/Oduya||Leddy/Rozsival|
|Kopitar (w/ Gaborik, Brown)||16.7%||58.2%||3.5%|
|Carter (w/ Toffoli, Pearson)||31.5%||15.5%||23.8%|
|Stoll (w/ Lewis, Williams)||25.7%||9.3%||28.7%|
|Richards (w/ Clifford, King)||26.1%||17.0%||44.1%|
There were clearly two priorities here: getting Hjalmarsson and Oduya out against Kopitar's line, and keeping Nick Leddy and Michal Rozsival away from them. The end result saw Keith and Seabrook play a lot of time against everyone, Hjalmarsson and Oduya getting Kopitar and then mop-up minutes against everyone else, and Leddy and Rozsival getting the scraps with a heavy emphasis on the opposition's fourth line.
It's a solid strategy. If Hjalmarsson and Oduya can handle the toughest minutes, than Keith and Seabrook should have no problem with the Kings' depth. It allowed the Blackhawks to spot Leddy and Rozsival in minutes where they didn't need to worry about getting burned.
Except that it didn't work out quite that way:
|Even-strength goals, shots and shot attempts plus/minus|
|Chicago Pairing||Goals For/Against||Shots For/Against||Corsi For/Against|
|Keith and Seabrook||+1/-0||+4/-9||+9/-17|
|Hjalmarsson and Oduya||+1/-0||+7/-7||+16/-14|
|Leddy and Rozsival||+0/-1||+6/-8||+11/-15|
The Keith/Seabrook pairing came out ahead by a goal but ended up deeply in the red in terms of shots and shot attempts for and against. Even the goal itself was the result of just getting the bounces as much as anything:
ExtraSkater.com shows us that the Keith/Seabrook pairing started a large number of shifts in their own end of the rink, but not nearly enough to explain their performance.
The Oduya/Hjalmarsson duo, on the other hand, was brilliant in this game. Timeonice.com has them out for 10 defensive-zone draws and just four offensive-zone draws at even strength, and they took on the toughest available Kings line. Despite this, they posted crooked results. It would be a mistake to give them all the credit (after all, most of their time against Kopitar was spent with the Jonathan Toews line on the ice), but they delivered in this contest.
Leddy and Rozsival, however, have little excuse for their poor results. They faced (comparatively) subpar opponents, got an offensive-zone push, and still were out-shot, out-attempted and surrendered the only goal against on a play that involved mistakes by both parties:
Rozsival pinched to cover Jeff Carter (who was already being pressured by forward Marcus Kruger) and in so doing left two Kings forwards behind him and partner Leddy alone to face them. Leddy did a nice job forcing Tanner Pearson to the outside but couldn't prevent the cross-ice pass (always the paramount concern in a two-on-one), and a goal resulted. Rozsival added insult to injury with a decided lack of enthusiasm in his return to the defensive zone.
"He was okay," Quenneville said after the game when asked about Leddy's performance in the contest.
But whatever the flaws in execution, this is a solid game plan for Chicago and one that the Kings will have to overcome in Game 2.
If Hjalmarsson and Oduya (in concert with Toews) can effectively shut down L.A.'s top line, the other two pairings should eventually deliver results. Keith and Seabrook are both world-class defencemen, and having them on the ice against L.A.'s depth helps to negate one of the Kings' greatest strengths (and drive offence for the Hawks in those matchups). Rozsival and Leddy weren't a terribly effective tandem in Game 1, but they both have resumes which suggest that they should be able to make hay with softer minutes in time.
It worked in Game 1, and if the Kings' top line can't start generating something against Hjalmarsson and Oduya, there's no reason it can't work all series.
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