While the result in Game 4 was a good one for the Blackhawks, as they were able to win the game 4-3 and finish off a second-round sweep of the Minnesota Wild, the team still suffered a loss. In the second period, Michal Rozsival's ankle twisted completely the wrong way as he transitioned from skating backwards to forwards, and he would miss the remainder of the game. The Blackhawks had to play more than 30 minutes with just five defensemen, but with the limited use of Kimmo Timmonen, it felt more like four, especially in the third period.
While Rozsival was a favorite whipping boy for Blackhawks fans and bloggers alike through much of the season, the reality was coach Joel Quenneville didn't really have a better option to fill that fifth defenseman spot. And despite consistently underperforming throughout the regular season, Rozsival was having a largely solid postseason, with most of the mistakes he repeatedly made in the regular season not being nearly as evident. The injury to his ankle, which the team announced would keep him out for the remainder of the post-season, could be a bigger loss to the Blackhawks blue line than some think.
It's important to not that the most likely adjustment will be more ice time for the other regular Chicago defensemen. That was probably going to happen anyway, given that the Hawks are now just four wins from the Stanley Cup Final, but this injury makes it especially necessary. Expect to see the top four blue liners logging borderline ridiculous minutes going forward.
Still, the Hawks will still need to play, or at least have available, six defensemen in order to be most effective in the conference finals. So what are the Hawks options to enter the lineup as the sixth defenseman?
Maybe the most likely candidate to fill in for Rozsival is Kyle Cumiskey. While he spent most of the season in Rockford, Cumiskey played in seven games for the big club in the regular season, and did just fine. He is a pretty strong skater (maybe the best among the Hawks options), which could potentially be an upgrade over Rozsival, and has decent puck skills. It's those assets that have him likely near the top of the list to fill in on the Chicago blue line. One issue that could potentially come about should Cumiskey draw into the lineup is that it would leave the Hawks with 5 left-handed defensemen, but his ability to skate and play the puck should be weight more heavily than his handedness.
Another really likely candidate to be inserted in the lineup is David Rundblad. Rundblad and Rozsival often rotated with one another in and out of the fifth defenseman spot during the regular season, making Rundblad an obvious option. Rundblad's strength lies in his offensive game, as he's a pretty decent passer and has a howitzer of a slapshot from the blue line. He played well at times when paired with Duncan Keith in the regular season. That would allow Q to keep the Niklas Hjalmarsson - Johnny Oduya and Brent Seabrook - Kimmo Timmonen pairs together, while also being able to double shift Keith and Seabrook by playing them together occasionally. Not a preferable situation, but definitely an option.
Maybe the least likely of the candidates is the young blue-liner Michael Paliotta. Paliotta signed a 2-year entry level contract in the final weeks of the regular season, and only played in one regular season game, the season finale in Colorado. He's remained on the Blackhawks' roster throughout the post-season, but given his extreme lack of experience at the professional level, it's not very likely that we'll see him in the lineup.
One of the more intriguing options (and my personal vote) is Stephen Johns, who has spent the entirety of this regular season and post-season in the AHL with the Rockford IceHogs. Johns is believed to be bound for the Blackhawks blue-line next season, and some people even regard him as a future Brent Seabrook replacement. His game is similar to that of Seabrook, as he is a mobile defenseman with size, skating ability, and a pretty good offensive game. Helping his case is that he has been playing phenomenally for Rockford, showing more and more that he's ready to play at the NHL level. While introducing him to the NHL during the Western Conference Final might not be ideal, it could be among the Blackhawks best options.
Trevor van Riemsdyk
I'm gonna go back a bit on something I said before, because this is actually the least likely option, while Paliotta is just the least likely uninjured option. I include TvR on this list because of his time with the Hawks earlier this year, during which he played well and impressed a lot of people, myself included. However, van Riemsdyk underwent a wrist surgery a month ago yesterday, with a eight week recovery prognosis. Unless TvR has some crazy Patrick Kane heal-and-play powers, this really won't even be considered. But if he is making progress and feels good, maybe the coaching staff and front office will want to go with someone with a bit more recent NHL experience.
The Hawks blue line was already somewhat thin to begin with, and this injury does not help. It's clear that most of these options are guys who have little NHL experience (at least recently), which certainly isn't ideal. Rozsival's injury could potentially be a pretty big loss for the Blackhawks, but all is not lost. If Kimmo Timmonen can step up and play even just near the level that Rozy was playing at, whoever draws into the lineup just needs to do was Kimmo was doing before. The Blackhawks top-4 defensemen are good enough to be leaned on for most of a game and take most of the defensive load. Kimmo and the sixth defensemen will just need to play when given the chance, and probably won't see more than 10-12 minutes a night anyway.
Any of these above options would be fine for the role they will be asked to play. Quenneville and his coaching staff have plenty of options available to them, it's just a matter of figuring out who will be able to contribute to the team the most and give them the best chance to win.
Adam Hess is the editor and publisher of Feathers in the Hat, and a staff writer at Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter at @FeathersInDaHat.