When it was announced that the Blackhawks would be without their stalwart defenseman Duncan Keith for 4-6 weeks, we knew that the Blackhawks were going to be in a very tough position. Already thin on the blue line, losing arguably the best defenseman in the NHL was essentially lighting a match at a gas station. We knew we were in the danger zone.
Keith is a rare breed of NHL defenseman. He plays in all aspects of the game and is one of the most dominant players on the ice at all times. He often plays over 25 minutes a night and sees a merry-go-round of defensive partners because Joel Quenneville wants him on the ice as much as possible. You can't replace a player like that. You really can't even try to cover up that hole. Losing Keith requires a whole re-working of defensive strategy.
In the first game without Keith, a 3-2 victory over the Florida Panthers, that re-worked strategy proved successful. The Blackhawks' defense looked great for most of night, highlighted by a three-point performance from Brent Seabrook (just his second since 2010).
Seabrook is the kind of guy you often take for granted when someone like Keith is on your team. In many respects, Seabrook could be considered among the game's best defensemen. He isn't quite elite, not at the level of Keith, P.K. Subban, etc., but he'd be a top-pair blue liner on nearly any other team in the NHL and quite possibly the No. 1 defenseman on some teams.
Last night, Seabrook proved he can be that, at least while Keith is out. He had a goal and two assists while posting a 60 percent share of shot attempts at 5v5. His best play came at the open of the third period, when he hit Patrick Kane with a beautiful stretch pass to free up the winger for a breakaway goal on the power play.
Seabrook wasn't the only Blackhawks defenseman to have a great night, though. Trevor van Riemsdyk, who played much of the night on the second pair with Niklas Hjalmarsson, was one of the better Blackhawks players last night. Though he did not find the scoresheet, TVR had a strong game in both ends and dominated the possession game with a 73.68 percent Corsi share. It should be no surprise that the coaching staff was confident enough to give him career-high playing time.
There was really only one big defensive gaffe on the night from any of the Blackhawks' blue liners, and that came from Trevor Daley. Shortly after the Blackhawks opened the scoring to take a 1-0 lead, the Panthers responded with a strong push to get back to even. When Brandon Pirri and Vincent Trocheck came rushing down the ice on a 3-on-2, Daley was caught flat footed, scrambling to try to make a play. Instead, he stumbled to the ice, and the Panthers scored to equalize just 34 seconds after the Chicago goal when Corey Crawford failed to corral the puck.
Overall, though, it was a good first night without Keith. The Blackhawks as a team took 64.4 percent of the shot attempts at 5v5, which is a huge accomplishment in the first game without their two-time Norris Trophy winner. While it has been only one game, it is extremely encouraging to see the team's defense step up in its first chance to do so. Hopefully this is only the start of a surprising push for the Blackhawks without their No. 1 defenseman.