‘Warrior’ Oduya vital to Blackhawks’ success

Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya (27), left, battles Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Brenden Morrow (10) for the puck during the first period in Game 1 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Final. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

CHICAGO – “You have to live in the now,” Johnny Oduya said right before the Stanley Cup Final began.

For the future, albeit unknown, is likely to remove one of the four Clydesdales lugging the Chicago Blackhawks’ ever closer to the first NHL dynasty since Scotty Bowman’s Detroit Red Wings, the last team to lift three Cups in six years.

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Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Oduya — four of the six players who have skated the most ice time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But only one of them is on an expiring contract and due for a pay bump.

Remove Oduya from the Blackhawks lineup, as was the case partway through Game 3’s loss, and Chicago is not here. No way. The back end of the club’s back end is either too old or too young or too out of position to properly prevent scoring chances against the bruising Ducks or quicksilver Lightning. Only four horsemen have fully earned Coach Quenneville’s trust.

So Oduya, battling an undisclosed upper-body injury, not only played in Game 4, he blocked five shots, logged 25:45—his most since the double-OT win over Anaheim on May 23—helped snuff out Tampa’s power-play and finished a plus-1.

“A warrior.” That’s how Quenneville described Oduya Thursday, how partner Hjalmarsson described him post-game.

“I don’t know if he’s hurt or not. He played like he always do,” Hjalmarsson said of his friend, D-man, countryman. “He sacrifices his body and plays a hard game.”

Goaltender Scott Darling has been impressed with Oduya since the day he met him, noting his professionalism, his fierce attention to conditioning and nutrition, and his chemistry with Hjalmarsson.

“He and Hammer are such a great dynamic pair, it’s like they’re telepathic. They always know where each other’s at—and they play defence first,” Darling says. “He does the right thing: good first pass, get the pucks out. There’s not a lot of times where you let in a goal and you look up and he’s the guy out of position.”

When Oduya arrived here in 2012, after the Winnipeg Jets traded him for draft picks, he was thrilled. One season later, he had a featured role on both special-teams units and got fitted for a ring.

“I had a chance to go to a top contender,” Oduya said. “You try to do your best—fit in and find a place where you can use your skills and talent to benefit the team, and it worked out better than I thought.”

The 33-year-old appears to be this summer’s Nick Leddy, a key role player expelled because he didn’t fit onto an accountant’s spreadsheet. Oduya, an impending unrestricted free agent with a $3.383-million cap hit, may have played too well to stay.

This summer should represent his biggest contract yet.

“The salary cap, it’s a system we all play under. We’ve been through it before,” GM Stan Bowman said last week. “There’s changes to be made to every team, and we’re no different.

“There’s going to be some new players.

“If you look at it from a positive, you’re going to have some new blood. You’re going to have some guys that weren’t part of this.”

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Oduya, 33, said his contract situation has been brought up in discussions with teammates a couple times this season but maintained his July 1 deadline is neither a source of motivation nor discouragement.

Fear, he argued, cannot push you towards a championship.

“For us to be focused on something else than what’s going on now would be stupid,” Oduya said. “The reality is, you have to take care of the time you have in front of you.

“I’m going to take time here to enjoy this.”

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