ST. PAUL, Minn. — A week ago, a lot of Blackhawks fans were wondering if the Hawks can win the Stanley Cup with defenseman Michal Rozsival. Now, some of those same fans —at least the most fair-minded of them — have to be wondering if the Hawks can win it without him.
Though the Hawks completed a sweep of the Minnesota Wild with a 4-3 victory in Game 4 of their second-round series Thursday night at Xcel Energy Center, they likely will have to go the rest of the way without Rozsival, the 36-year-old defenseman who suffered an ugly, left ankle or foot injury in the second period.
“Tough loss,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Doesn’t look good.”
Rozsival suffered the injury as he was back-pedaling to defend Wild forward Thomas Vanek at the Hawks’ blue line. Tough-to-watch replays indicated Rozsival’s right ankle turned grotesquely as he fell to the ice with 13:23 left in the second period.
That left Vanek with a breakaway, which goaltender Corey Crawford stopped with a pad save of Vanek’s backhand attempt. But Rozsival stayed prone on the ice for several moments and had to be helped off the ice.
It was a tough loss for a team already thin on defenseman, especially with 40-year-old Kimmo Timonen’s minutes shrinking to 5:44 in Game 3. Niklas Hjalmarsson (26:09) and Brent Seabrook (24:57) picked up most of the slack in Game 4, with Rozsival’s partner, Duncan Keith playing his usual yeoman’s minutes (29:39). Timonen played 8:25 — his highest ice-time since Game 1 (10:49).
“Obviously [it’s tough],” Keith said. “He’s been my D-partner. He’s been great, playing alongside him. He’s a great guy in the locker room. He’s a great veteran on our team. It’s tough to see a guy get injured. I’m not really sure what happened. Hopefully he’s OK.”
The players obviously had not seen the replays. But they’ll get the bad news soon enough.
“You hate to see your teammates in pain like that,” forward Patrick Sharp said in a subdued Hawks locker room after the game. “Not sure what the diagnosis is or how he’s doing. I haven’t even seen him yet.
“To see the way the defense stepped and played shorthanded from basically the halfway point of the game on was impressive. Credit to them. They did a great job blocking shots and getting the puck to us. Great win.”
Quenneville was just happy to survive and figures to have time figure out what to do next. He lauded his veterans who picked up the slack, including Hjalmarsson, who also made a nice pass to Bryan Bickell, who set up Patrick Kane for a key third-period goal that gave the Hawks a 3-1 lead with 6:40 left in regulation.
“Look at the guys who played big minutes — they were rock solid,” Quenneville said. “They defend well, clear when they have to, block when they need to. They can make direct passes. Hammer made one of those over to Bicks. I don’t know how he got it there so perfect, but a memorable play by Hammer and finish by Kaner.”
It’s a particularly tough break for Rozsival, whose value to the Hawks this season arguably was never greater than at the moment he suffered the injury. The 14-year-veteran had an uneven-at-best regular season and did not play well in the first two games of the playoffs against Nashville. Fans were calling for anybody to replace him and Quenneville was asked a couple of versions of the same question that basically asked: “What do you see in him that we don’t?”
But Quenneville stuck with Rozsival and his loyalty was being rewarded right up to the disastrous moment. Rozsival played better at the close of the Nashville series and continued his fine play against the Wild. He was as predictable and dependable as Quenneville said he was.
And now — believe it or not, Hawks fans — the issue is how the Hawks are going to replace Michal Rozsival. The Hawks’ defensive corps was thin already, with Timonen’s diminishing ice-time.
David Rundblad, the likely next-man-up, was in an out of the lineup this season — he scored three goals and 14 points and was a plus-17 in 49 games. Kyle Cumiskey is unproven. Michael Paliotta is a rookie who signed with the team in March. Only Cumiskey has played in the Stanley Cup playoffs — in 2010 with the Colorado Avalanche, he had one goal, two points and was a minus-7 in six games against San Jose.
The loss or Rozsival hits the Hawks in a vulnerable spot. But the ability of Keith, Hjalmarsson, Seabrook and Oduya to play heavy minutes gives them a chance to overcome the loss of Rozsival.
This team won a Stanley Cup with defenseman Nick Boynton playing the final three games of the Stanley Cup Final in 2010. They won the Cup in 2013 with virtually five defenseman in the final three games of the Final against the Bruins when Nick Leddy’s ice team was reduced to token shifts.
Though the Hawks are 1-4 in the playoffs without Marian Hossa, they’re built much better to withstand absences among their defenseman. In fact, they’re 4-0 without stalwarts Keith and Seabrook. They went 3-0 when Seabrook was suspended for three games against the Blues following his hit on David Backes in the opening round last year. And when Keith was suspended for Game 4 against the Kings for slashing Jeff Carter in the 2013 Western Conference final, the Hawks won a critical road game — Rozsival’s 25:28 of ice time (more than 10 minutes above his series average) helped save the day.
Now, it’s somebody else’s turn.
“We’ve got a number of players that can step up and fill that role depending on how Mike’s doing,” Sharp said. “We’ll figure that out down the road. But depth has been a strength of this team at all positions. We’ll see what happens.”
Without knowing the severity of Rozsival’s injury, Keith seemed to think the Hawks could handle the situation.
“Whatever happens, happens,” he said. “We’ve played different guys the whole year over the last few years. We’re all in good shape. We’ve just got to be smart.”