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Connor Murphy is making one part of coach Jeremy Colliton’s job — creating and maintaining the Blackhawks’ defensive pairs — very easy.
No matter whom Colliton puts with Murphy, the broad-shouldered, wide-smiled defenseman magically transforms the pairing into a consistent, reliable shutdown duo.
Olli Maatta is the latest beneficiary.
After the Hawks’ 3-0 victory Tuesday against the Stars — a shutout thanks in part to Murphy and Maatta locking down Dallas’ explosive first line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Joe Pavelski — Colliton gave the duo a great review.
“They took the [toughest] matchup, for the most part, and they were good,” Colliton said. “They were clean with the puck when they needed to be. You can’t just defend — you get the puck back, then we’ve got to get out.
“They’re two big bodies, and they’re playing against big bodies, and they did a really good job.”
In the last two games, Murphy-Maatta had shot, shot-on-goal and scoring-chance ratios all above 50 percent despite consistently playing against the Stars’ best forwards.
Thanks to the pairing’s effectiveness, the Hawks allowed only one goal in the home-and-home set against the Stars, who had won 12 of their last 14 games.
Murphy alone equaled that scoring total with his 180-foot empty-net goal, sealing the win Tuesday. It might not have required as much offensive instinct as his first goal of the season (last week against the Hurricanes), but it was certainly well deserved, giving Murphy a little dose of good luck and a box-score reward in exchange for suffering through two groin injuries already this season.
“I have to tip the rink guys for funneling the ice,” he joked afterward. “I think they’ve been digging out a trench for that one.”
When he has been healthy, Murphy has developed nothing less than a Midas touch when it comes to making the Hawks’ haphazard pairings turn golden.
Last season, he made his pairing with Carl Dahlstrom seem like a legitimate shutdown duo for a while — yet Dahlstrom is now nothing more than a healthy scratch for the Jets.
Earlier this season, he made Duncan Keith look like he was back in his prime, forming a dominant No. 1 pairing with the 36-year-old.
Now he has revived Maatta, whose early success alongside Brent Seabrook had long faded.
Murphy’s defensive statistics have become miles better than anyone else in the Hawks’ defensive core. He’s allowing only 51.6 shots per 60 minutes — everyone else is between 56 and 70. He’s allowing only 24.0 scoring chances per 60 minutes — everyone else is between 28 and 34. Same for shots on goal, expected goals and so forth.
With that constant supply of stifling defense, it’s no wonder Murphy provides such a stabilizing effect on the unit overall.
But Maatta merits some credit, too. The former Penguin boasts the second-lowest scoring-chance-against rate on the team and has been excellent since his return to Pittsburgh on Nov. 9 with a 50.7 Corsi rating in the nine games since after limping to a 42.2 rating before then.
Together, the Ohio native and Finland native are growing into a responsible defensive duo that Colliton can rely on. They clearly showed that Tuesday.
“Exiting [the defensive zone], we were skating a lot to try to move it back to the [neutral zone], and that helped us from having too long a shift in our own end,” Murphy said. “We were making more confident plays with the puck. When you skate and talk and use outlets, I think it makes your life a lot easier.”