CHICAGO -- As much as the Chicago Blackhawks have missed Jonathan Toews, losing a key defenseman might loom that much larger. While it’s somewhat surprising the Hawks have gone 10-4-1 without Toews, the notion that overcoming the loss of a key forward is a little easier than losing a defenseman rings true.
Defensemen play bigger minutes and the top ones simply have more of an effect on the game than forwards. So playing without Duncan Keith for the next five games as he begins his much-talked-about suspension will be a challenge for Chicago. When Keith was out with an injury in early November the Hawks gave up 13 goals in three games. When another top defenseman, Brent Seabrook, missed time the Hawks gave up 16 in four games.
Sean O’Donnell will take Keith’s place in the lineup, but Niklas Hjalmarsson will be counted on to fill his role. He was paired with Seabrook at practice on Saturday.
“I’ve played with Seabs before,” Hjalmarsson said afterwards. “He’s a top defenseman in the league. It will be fun to play with him again. Hopefully we can play as solid as they [Seabrook and Keith] did before.”
Nick Leddy and Johnny Oduya will stay together while O’Donnell gets inserted with Dylan Olsen on the third pair. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said it was the familiarity of Seabrook and Hjalmarsson and the success of the Leddy/Oduya partnership that helped make the personnel decisions. It means Hjalmarsson will go from a smaller role, playing fewer minutes, to seeing the opposition’s best forwards.
“I did that in the beginning of the season,” he said. “It’s something I really enjoy doing. I love that challenge.”
Quenneville indicated he can always change the pairings depending on how the game is going.
Toews spoke extensively after practice about his recent setback and his return to the ice. Saturday marked his fifth straight day of skating as he recovers from a concussion, but just the first full practice with his teammates in about 10 days.
Toews was asked what it felt like when his symptoms returned after skating for several days earlier this month.
“Mostly when you wake up you feel it,” Toews said. “There isn’t much there that’s bothering me on daily things. When I come to the rink and go out there and do what I do, it’s all those things that kind of set in. You don’t feel right, you don’t feel like yourself.”
Toews is hopeful that’s behind him. He’s felt more like “himself” over the course of this week but won’t put a timetable on a return.
“I want to be in game shape going into the game,” he said. “I’d like to be playing as soon as I can and get a couple of regular season games under my belt.”
With the Hawks firmly entrenched in a playoff spot, there’s little reason to rush Toews back and he knows it. One more setback and an appearance in the playoffs could be in jeopardy.
More than one Hawks fan has noted the five-game suspension to Keith could be a blessing in disguise. Again, the Hawks are in good position in terms of making the playoffs, so some rest and relaxation could do the Hawks busiest player some good. That notion wasn’t lost on Keith.
"I'm going to use [the suspension] as best I can to get as much rest, eat properly, get lots of sleep and be working out,” Keith said. “And hopefully use it to my advantage.”
As for the suspension itself, the phone call with the league and Daniel Sedin’s high hit on Keith previous to the blow to Sedin, Keith decided to take the high road.
“I’m not going to get into any of that,” he said.
At this point it sounds like the Hawks just want to get past it and move on.
Corey Crawford will start in goal on Sunday.
“Unfortunately Duncan may have gone a little bit overboard there. It’s a tough suspension. We feel for him, but it is what it is. We can’t go back on it now.”-- Toews.
“I haven’t thought about that. I probably won’t. Probably be [Marian Hossa. He’s only scored 900 points, been to three straight Cup finals.” -- Patrick Kane, on the idea of his wearing an “A” in Keith’s place.