ANAHEIM, Calif. — Whether the subject is the physical abuse from the Anaheim Ducks or the mounting ice time for their defensemen after five overtime periods in the first four games, the Blackhawks have shrugged off the wear-and-tear issue that just won’t go away in the Western Conference final.
“I think [it works] both ways,” forward Bryan Bickell said. “They are wearing us down. But they’re getting tired from wearing us down.”
“You know, I feel fine,” said defenseman Brent Seabrook, who was averaging 33:56 of ice time in the series — second on the Hawks to Duncan Keith (36:45), heading into Game 5 on Monday night at the Honda Center.
They might mean it as much as they say it, or maybe that’s just part of the process of find a way to “trick your body … whether you feel really good or not,” as captain Jonathan Toews explained.
Regardless, there was one player who bore watching in Game 5 on Monday night — veteran Marian Hossa, a proud, relentless warrior whose 36-year-old body is not easily tricked. On paper, if not on the ice, the wear-and-tear of these overtime games seem to be taking a toll on Hossa, whose production and impact has noticeably dipped in games following the marathon sessions.
In three games following the multiple-overtime games in this year’s playoffs coming into Game 5 of the conference final, Hossa has no points and a minus-2 differential. In the 11 other playoff games, he has 10 points (two goals, eight assists) and a plus-6 differential.
Hawks coach Joel Quenneville has been cognizant of managing Hossa’s time on the ice in recent seasons. Hossa was given several “veteran’s-practice-off” days during last year’s playoffs. And it was working magnificently — Hossa scored nine points (one goal, eight assists) and was a plus-7 in six games against the Wild in the second round of the playoffs.
But eventually, Hossa wore down at the end of the conference final against the Kings. In the final six games, Hossa scored one point (an assist) and was a minus-5. After the 5-4 double-overtime victory in Game 5, Hossa had the lowest Corsi percentage (29.0) of the season in Game 6. He wasn’t all that much better (41.1) in Game 7.
Hossa as much as any Hawk gives it all he’s got. You can see the determination in his game. But the reality is that after 17 seasons in the NHL, he is challenged more than most to maintain his level of impact as the minutes pile up. In nine games after playing 20 or more minutes in the last two postseasons, Hossa has one point (a goal) and is a minus-8; in the other 24 games, he has 23 points (three goals, 20 assists) and is a plus-12.
The Hawks have more than enough talent to win without all their stars clicking, but Hossa is arguably the closest thing to a bellwether player they have. In the last four seasons, the Hawks are 10-13-0 without Hossa. They’re 17-9-4 without Toews.
Hossa’s importance is even more pronounced in the playoffs. The Hawks are 14-0 in playoff games when Hossa scores a goal. In recent playoffs, they have withstood the loss of Duncan Keith (1-0) and Brent Seabrook (3-0). But they’re 1-4 when Hossa doesn’t play. In fact, their most decisive series loss in the playoffs in the last six seasons — losing in six games to the Phoenix Coyotes in the first round in 2012 — came after Hossa was knocked out of the series after Raffi Torres blindsided him early in Game 3.
In a series that is as tight as can be, the Hawks need their best players to come through. Though Toews and Patrick Kane are renowned for their playoff excellence, you can argue that it’s Marian Hossa who should be at the top of that list.