Subtly but steadily, Duncan Keith’s defense has become Connor Murphy’s defense.
Murphy again carried the Blackhawks on his back to the finish line Saturday, helping them close out a crucial 4-3 victory against the Blue Jackets.
At this point, there’s no longer any question who the Hawks’ No. 1 defenseman is.
“[Murphy is] the guy when we’re defending a lead,” coach Jeremy Colliton said matter-of-factly. “He’s got to be out there. He’s the best at defending and getting us out of the D-zone, being physical, getting stops. I would’ve liked to have used him a little bit less, but he was the one who was going, and he’s typically the guy you want to use in those situations.”
Keith still has a sizable role, but the 37-year-old veteran has shown signs of slowing down this season. He has been heavily involved in the Hawks’ recent turnover parades and been caught out of position several times, too, including inexplicably leaving a cross-ice passing seam open during the Jackets’ third goal.
Murphy, meanwhile, handled another massive workload, logging 26:58. He played 10:11 in the third period, including the last 2:14 without coming off the ice.
That was enough to secure the Hawks a victory in a game in which they trailed 2-0 just four minutes in.
A Colliton timeout turned the momentum, goals from Alex DeBrincat and Carl Soderberg tied the score by the first intermission and the Hawks generated one of their most dominant second periods of the year to take control.
Murphy’s ice-time average is above 22 minutes, but in games the Hawks have won, it’s 23:49. In their last seven victories, he has averaged 25:14.
He has become one of the faces and voices of the team, too. His honest “fragile” quote Thursday about the Hawks’ poor responses to individual mistakes created fruitful discussion about one of the team’s key shortcomings.
But the defense beneath Murphy — and Keith, who remains a regular despite his slightly reduced prominence — remains one in transition.
Veteran Calvin de Haan exited in the second period with a hip pointer and did not return. Colliton said he didn’t think it was a long-term injury, but he’ll find out more in the coming days.
Rookie Wyatt Kalynuk, on the other hand, suddenly has become a nightly player, appearing in six consecutive games after playing only one of the Hawks’ first 36. He was credited with his first NHL goal on a fluky play.
“It’s just another step,” Kalynuk said. “I’ve got to continue to grow and take more steps. Lots of young players come in, and it’s tough to find your groove.
“[Assistant coach] Marc Crawford told me it’s hardest to stay sharp after the first five. . . . [But I] just try to keep my same mindset as if it were my first game. I’m still trying to keep things simple, trying to minimize mistakes as much as I can.”
With Adam Boqvist also growing this season into the talented top-four defenseman the Hawks envisioned, Ian Mitchell and Nicolas Beaudin knocking on the door and Riley Stillman coming in, the Hawks’ defense could conceivably look very different in 2021-22 — with this season being the transition period.
But it’s pretty clear Murphy will be the boss of that 2021-22 group.
“We need [him],” Colliton said. “We need guys who can soak up minutes and defend and get us out of there. But he has extremely high character, a great work ethic [and is] willing to pay the price for the team, willing to do the dirty work.”