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updated: 5/11/2013 8:07 PM

Blackhawks' defense will be tested in next round

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  • Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and defenseman Duncan Keith defend the goal against Minnesota Wild left wing Jason Zucker after Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford was on the ice on the other side of the net Tuesday in Game 1 of the Western Conference first-round playoff series at the United Center in Chicago.

       Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and defenseman Duncan Keith defend the goal against Minnesota Wild left wing Jason Zucker after Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford was on the ice on the other side of the net Tuesday in Game 1 of the Western Conference first-round playoff series at the United Center in Chicago.
    John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 

It doesn't matter whom the Blackhawks draw in the second round -- and it can only be Detroit or San Jose -- there will be a difficult matchup waiting for the shutdown defense pair of Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson.

If it's Detroit, shutting down the Red Wings' dynamic duo of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg will be the challenge.

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If it's San Jose, containing the Sharks' top line of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski will be the assignment for Keith and Hjalmarsson.

"I think at the end of the day you have to play them the same way no matter who it is," Keith said. "All good players like to have time and space with the puck, so just being on them quickly and not giving them time and space is key. Just being on them quick and not giving them time to get their head up and make plays all the time.

"Obviously, Thornton is a big guy and he likes to guard the puck, but Datsyuk's not the biggest guy either and he can guard the puck pretty good, too.

"They both have different things that make them good, but at the end of the day it's what we do is what we need to focus on and prepare for."

The Hawks will play Detroit if the Red Wings can beat Anaheim in Game 7 of that series Sunday night. It's San Jose in the second round if the Ducks beat the Red Wings.

"Both those teams are highly skilled teams that like to hold on to the puck like we play," Hjalmarsson said. "It's going to be a big difference from the last round against Minnesota.

"They're more of a defensive-minded team, and now that we're going into the next round it's going to be more of a challenge to keep their top guys off the scoresheet.

"There are good players on both teams, so it's not going to be a huge difference if we play Detroit or San Jose."

Keith and Hjalmarsson totally shut down the Wild's top line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle to the tune of 1 goal in the last series. Koivu and Parise were a combined minus-13 in the five games.

"It was just trying to play good defense, having a good gap in the neutral zone and eliminating the second and third chances," Keith said. "Corey (Crawford) did a good job, too. It's not two guys that did it, it's not one line of forwards, it's a team game.

"It's goaltenders making saves, defense clearing rebounds, having good gaps and good sticks and forwards back pressuring, allowing us defensemen to stay up. That's been huge all year long."

One of the best moves Hawks coach Joel Quenneville made all season was splitting up Keith and Brent Seabrook and putting Keith and Hjalmarsson together for the March 31 game in Detroit. The Hawks are 15-2-2 since that day.

"I've been playing on the same team with him for a long time, so I know how he functions," Hjalmarsson said. "The way he prepares himself and battles every single night, he just has a level not a lot of players in this league have.

"When he plays at the highest level as he can he's a dominant guy in this league, and that's what he's been doing here, especially in the first round.

"He was probably one of the most important guys here in the first round and it's going to be that way in the second round."

Keith said playing with Hjalmarsson has allowed him to play a bigger role in the offense.

"I think Nik's a really good player," Keith said. "I think he's a little bit underrated. He doesn't get a lot of recognition because he doesn't put up a lot of points, but he's got a really good stick and he's tough to beat defensively. I think the other players on the other teams know how hard it is to play against him.

"For me it's just easy to play with him. He chips the puck out and keeps it in, plays real simple. I think the fact he likes to stay home allows me to have confidence to get up in the play knowing that he's going to be back."

•Follow Tim's hockey reports on Twitter @TimSassone and check out his Between the Circles blog at dailyherald.com.

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