LOS ANGELES -- When a player as talented as Duncan Keith is out of the lineup, the void can seem as wide as Lake Michigan.
But the Chicago Blackhawks found a way to succeed Thursday without their star defenseman, who was suspended for Game 4 of the Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Kings. The Blackhawks earned the 3-2 victory at Staples Center by getting a little extra from their remaining blueliners, sending them back to Chicago with a 3-1 series lead.
Niklas Hjalmarsson was paired with Keith’s regular partner, Brent Seabrook, causing him to switch to the left side, but he celebrated his 26th birthday by matching his career high with two assists, all while playing a playoff-high 24 minutes, 57 seconds.
Johnny Oduya also changed partners, teaming with Michal Rozsival before coming up with a key takeaway early in the third period that led to his assist on Marian Hossa's game-winning goal. Rozsival spent 25:28 on the ice, his most since the playoff opener.
Leading all defensemen was Seabrook with a team-leading 26:20 of ice time, the most since he played 26:41 in an overtime victory March 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"I thought we got contributions across the board, especially the guys that logged a lot of minutes down there," said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville. "They did a real good job of having a good gap, getting some clears, strong in front of the net."
Keith was suspended for the game after bloodying Los Angeles forward Jeff Carter with a swing of his stick in Game 3. His unavailability forced Sheldon Brookbank into the lineup for the first time since the regular-season finale. Brookbank was a minus-2 in 6:50 of ice time, but his teammates were quick to applaud his efforts as well.
"He played the puck well and he was moving his feet well and had a lot of energy making great plays," said Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford. "All our D back there was setting the pace, getting the pucks to our forwards and making some big blocks on the [penalty kill]."
Hjalmarsson’s efforts were most notable because he was playing on a sore knee after blocking a shot in Game 3, but twice managed to set up goals that brought the Blackhawks back from one-goal deficits.
He flicked a pass from the neutral zone between a pair of Los Angeles defenders and onto the stick of Bryan Bickell, who beat Kings goalie Jonathan Quick to tie the score at 1 at the 13:16 mark of the first period.
After the Kings retook the lead early in the second period, Hjalmarsson found himself alone with the puck between the circles as a number of players from both teams converged on the net. He sent a wrist shot at Quick that trickled through his pads and appeared ready to cross the goal line before Patrick Kane nudged it across, knotting the score at 2 late in the second period.
"The second assist was a little better, but the first one was pure luck," Hjalmarsson said. "I just chipped it in the middle there and Bick did a good shot. Personally, I don’t think I had a great game today, slow start, but I found my way as the game went along."
Now the Blackhawks have a chance to finish the series Saturday in Chicago, with a defensive unit that will be back to full strength.
"I'm sure the building will be as loud as it's ever been," Quenneville said. "We're looking forward to it."