Unheralded Blackhawks defence has elite ship righted in Chicago

The likes of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are still bringing the flair, but it has been a cast of overlooked defenders and goaltenders that have gotten the Blackhawks out of their funk, writes Gregg Patton.
Niklas Hjalmarsson, right, of the Chicago Blackhawks battles for the puck with Tomas Plekanec of the Montreal Canadiens during their 4-3 win in the NHL  on Friday. David Banks / USA Today Sports / December 5, 2014
Niklas Hjalmarsson, right, of the Chicago Blackhawks battles for the puck with Tomas Plekanec of the Montreal Canadiens during their 4-3 win in the NHL on Friday. David Banks / USA Today Sports / December 5, 2014

Close your eyes, think of the Chicago Blackhawks and it is likely that the first image is of Patrick Kane on a rush toward the opponent’s net.

Or maybe it is of Jonathan Toews stealing a puck and turning a deft assist. Or defenceman Duncan Keith unleashing a heavy slap shot from the blue line.

Fair enough.

But Chicago’s recent surge to the top of the Central Division standings, and a return to the form that brought them two Stanley Cup championships in the past five years has its basis in a far more pedestrian reality.

Defence.

Through the first third of the season, the Blackhawks have been the toughest team to score on in the NHL, the only team to hold opponents under two goals per game.

If the team’s top blue liners are Keith and Brent Seabrook, who also are strong offensive contributors with a combined 10 goals and 22 assists, it is the secondary duo of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya who define the team, as well.

The two Swedes, who played together for Sweden’s Olympic team last winter, tend to be coach Joel Quenneville’s choice against other team’s top lines, and log more time when Chicago is protecting a late lead.

“That pair gets a lot of top assignments, and game in game out, have been very steady for us,” said Quenneville. “But I think everybody gets a little bit of credit, across the board.”

Including his goaltenders.

Corey Crawford is rarely mentioned as a Vezina Trophy contender, but his numbers (1.87 goals against, 92.9 per cent saves rate) stack up favourably with the league’s best.

Even a recent foot injury, that will sideline Crawford for the next couple of weeks, has not slowed the rampaging Hawks.

Back-up Antti Raanta (2.02 GA, 94.2 saves) and call-up Scott Darling (1.73 GA, 94.3) moved seamlessly into the net in Crawford’s place last week, and the Hawks picked up wins over top-tier teams St Louis, Montreal and Nashville.

With nine victories in 10 games (including a pair of dominating 4-1 road wins at Los Angeles and Anaheim), Chicago has climbed back to the top of the division.

The Hawks finally seem “right” after a puzzling 6-6 start. The offensive balance is still there, of course. Kane leads the team’s scoring with 12 goals and 26 points, but Toews (22 points), Kris Versteeg (22), Marian Hossa (19), Brad Richards (18) and Keith (17) provide formidable depth to the attack.

“Guys are having fun, there’s lots of energy, we’re getting results,” Toews told the Chicago Tribune. “We can contrast that with where we were a month ago when it was a little more frustrating. We were working hard but not getting results.”

In any case, after two months, the picture seems clearer – that once-elite team in Chicago still is.

sports@thenational.ae

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Published: December 9, 2014 04:00 AM

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