ANAHEIM, Calif. — What’s the deal with David Rundblad? Take your pick:
Maybe Rundblad was nervous in his first career Stanley Cup playoff game. Maybe he was rusty after having not played in a real game in 36 days. Or maybe he’s just not good enough to play on this stage without flubbing a line here or there.
We’ll find out soon enough — it does not appear he’s going anywhere — but for now all three options are in play after Rundblad’s shaky performance in the Blackhawks’ 4-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks in Game 1 of the Western Conference final. Twice in the first 25 minutes, the 26-year-old defenseman failed to control a puck in a fairly typical postseason moment — it’s not like he was in some kind of late-game panicky state of distress — and each mishap led to a Ducks goal as Anaheim built a 2-0 lead early in the second period and never trailed.
The Hawks had their share of issues in their Game 1 loss. They failed to score on three power plays. They were outplayed by the Ducks’ third and fourth lines. And they scored one goal against Frederik Andersen after making Vezina Trophy finalists Pekka Rinne an Devan Dubnyk look pedestrian in their previous series.
But Rundblad’s struggles and the exposure of the Hawks’ paper-thin depth on defense in the wake of Michal Rozsival’s season-ending broken ankle loom as the biggest threat to their playoff life at this point. Rundblad played 10:47 and Kimmo Timonen was almost invisible with 5:15 of ice time as Quenneville leaned on his “Big Four” of Duncan Keith (28:25), Brent Seabrook (26:57), Johnny Oduya (22:29) and Niklas Hjalmarsson (20:10) to carry the load — as expected.
But Quenneville did not appear concerned in the least.
“I think we’re fine,” he said. “Every game’s different. Not playing much [after a nine-day layoff between series], you want to play it safe and keep it as simple as you can. We’ll work our way through it.”
That’s the confidence of a coach who has two more Stanley Cups than the rest of us. Quenneville has faced tougher predicaments and survived. But it’ll be interesting to see how he handles this one, because right he has four Stanley Cup playoff quality defenseman. And he risks wearing one or more of them out if he doesn’t get more out of Rundblad, Timonen or healthy scratch Kyle Cumiskey.
As for Rundblad, Quenneville did not absolve him of blame for his contribution to the two goals. But he didn’t condemn him either.
“You don’t want to be on the ice when they score,” Quenneville said, in the hockey-est statement of the day. “Defensively, you look at the plays — we want to make sure we’re making safe plays and good plays and easy exits. A couple of those — could do differently. But not as easy start — first playoff game and [he] played for an extensive period.”
Rundblad was not made available to the media after the game, but here’s what he probably would have said: “It was a tough spot for me. But I don’t want to make excuses — I’ve got to be better than that. Every game’s different. I played well enough in the regular season that I have confidence I’ll respond better the next time. I’m looking forward to it.”
It’s hard to tell if Rundlbad will be good enough, but he should be better in Game 2 than he was in Game 1. Sheldon Brookbank faced a similar quandary when he filled in for the suspended Duncan Keith in Game 3 against the Kings in 2013. Playing for the first time in 39 days, Brookbank was victimized for two early goals and was all but pulled from the rotation. But Brookbank fared much better last year when he filled in for the suspended Brent Seabrook. Playing for the first time in 10 days, he was a plus-2 in three games, and on the ice for only one goal.
In fact, the Hawks found a way to win all four games with either Keith or Seabrook out and Sheldon Brookbank in. When Joel Quenneville says “we’ll work around it,” you kind of have to figure he knows what he’s doing.