CHICAGO - When the Chicago Blackhawks lost Michal Rozsival to injury in the second round of the playoffs, they rode their top four defencemen the rest of the way through the post-season.
It turned out to be a Stanley Cup-winning recipe.
While the Tampa Bay Lightning relied on depth, the Blackhawks kept going back to playoff MVP Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya. Instead of getting worn out, they got better and led the charge in a series won by defence.
"You kind of take it as a challenge," Oduya said. "You want to prove that it's not an issue."
The Blackhawks proved it time and again in these playoffs, eventually wearing down a Lightning team that was besieged by injuries. Tampa Bay goaltender Ben Bishop missed one game in the final and left another, while Tyler Johnson and Brian Boyle played through noticeable issues.
While the Lightning were the better team, they began to look like the more tired and banged-up team as the series progressed. Coach Jon Cooper said he wouldn't trade any of the playoff "grind" to be on the golf course, but it took a toll on his team.
Meanwhile, the Blackhawks were relatively healthy. Other than Rozsival, they didn't have any major injuries.
"You still need things to fall into place for you to a certain degree as far as guys staying healthy," captain Jonathan Toews said Monday. "To a certain degree, the guys in our room do what they have to do to make sure they're getting everything they can out of themselves."
Chicago got a little something from almost everybody. Eight different defencemen dressed, including 40-year-old Kimmo Timonen, who will retire on top.
The Blackhawks are champions again not because Toews and Patrick Kane were dominant but because role players stepped up and scored big goals. Trade-deadline pickup Antoine Vermette had two game-winners in the final, and rookie Teuvo Teravainen was one of the most productive players.
But in a series in which goals were hard to come by, preventing them was the difference. Goaltender Corey Crawford played his part, but Keith, Hjlamarsson, Seabrook and Oduya did the job on Steven Stamkos and the Lightning's "Triplets" line that thrived through the first three rounds.
Riding the top four on the blue line came out of necessity. But as it worked against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference final, it did again to knock off the Lightning in six for the Blackhawks' third Cup in six seasons.
"You're playing to win that game," coach Joel Quenneville said. "They're competitive guys. They want to be on the ice. I feel the more defencemen play, your game's more productive or effective."
The Blackhawks weren't always productive and they chased the game at times against the Lightning, who were felled by some bad breaks and some ill-timed mistakes.
A couple of sequences stuck out to Cooper. At one end Crawford turned the puck over to Nikita Kucherov, who instead of scoring crashed into the post and had to leave Game 5.
A minute later Bishop collided with defenceman Victor Hedman and Patrick Sharp scored into a completely empty net. In Game 4, Stamkos missed scoring into a similarly open net when Seabrook got a piece of his stick on the puck.
"It's crazy how those little things have turned out," Cooper said.
But not so crazy that the Blackhawks came up on the winning end of one of this ultra-tight Cup final. Although it's difficult to quantify, Chicago's playoff-seasoned core used its experience to close the deal.
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