Defensemen Connor Murphy and Duncan Keith had played just one career game together — in February 2018 — before coach Jeremy Colliton elevated them to the top pairing a week ago.
Thanks to an eternity as locker-room and bench-seating partners, however, the pair has meshed seamlessly.
“I like to just mess with Duncs from time to time when I can, and he’s good at getting on me for things,” Murphy said. “When you sit next to each other, you end up talking a lot during the game about each period, and we’ll just go back and forth and small talk.”
Murphy and Keith, 10 years his elder, were first united this season against the Jets and have stuck together in the four games since.
They’ve produced the best results of the three defensive pairs.
The slowpoke duo of Brent Seabrook and Olli Maatta owns horrific possession numbers, while the makeshift third pairing of Erik Gustafsson and Calvin de Haan lacks a clear identity. But Murphy and Keith actually have lived up to their top-pairing status. They’ve been on the ice for more Hawks shot attempts than opponent shot attempts, something not many players on this team can claim.
“They’ve been good, really good,” Colliton said. “They’ve found a way to get out of ‘D’ zone, which has really helped our group, because typically they’re playing against the other team’s top line.
“They’ve been under control with the puck — that’s the biggest thing. It’s fine to defend well, but then you’ve got to make a play to get out of the ‘D’ zone. Otherwise, you’re going to end up defending all night.”
Perhaps most impressive is that Murphy has played at least 22:56 in each of his first three games with Keith, something he did only twice in 52 appearances last season. He essentially leapt right from a short stint on injured reserve, which cost him the second half of training camp, into the most taxing role he ever has occupied.
That’s because Murphy’s defensive reliability and occasional physicality are more valued than ever before.
Whereas Gustafsson flourished offensively (but made some mistakes in his own end) alongside Keith on the top pairing much of last season, Murphy is a more natural fit now given the dialed-up focus on scoring-chance prevention.
“[I’m] thankful for . . . being able to play certain special teams and certain matchups,” Murphy said. “That’s what you want, especially as more of a defensive guy.”
His leadership skills also are receiving extra attention now.
“He’s got a lot of maturity about him, and you can tell he wants to get better, he wants to improve, and for everybody, that’s important,” Keith said. “He works hard off the ice every year and he’s committed to getting better, so I think that’s a big thing. He brings a lot of leadership, for a young guy especially.”
Murphy and Keith’s mutual admiration and strong rapport make for more than good quotes.
Colliton’s man-zone hybrid defensive system requires a tremendous amount of on-ice communication. And this pairing has it down pat.
“There’s not really a whole lot that needs to be said, but if there’s the odd little play that he likes to make, then he’ll tell me that tendency that he wants,” Murphy said. “You can just have small little comments, and it goes a long way when the game’s happening fast.”