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updated: 2/27/2013 10:36 AM

Blackhawks' defensive approach impressive

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  • The Blackhawks' Niklas Hjalmarsson (4) and Jonathan Toews (19) keep Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins from getting a shot on goalie Ray Emery during the third period Monday night at the United Center. The Blackhawks won 3-2 in overtime.

      The Blackhawks' Niklas Hjalmarsson (4) and Jonathan Toews (19) keep Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins from getting a shot on goalie Ray Emery during the third period Monday night at the United Center. The Blackhawks won 3-2 in overtime.
    Associated Press


As the Blackhawks approach half a shortened season without a regulation loss, the search for an explanation reaches places in the galaxy even the Hubble can't discern.

But sometimes we look for the answers too high up and too far away, when the reason is as simple as a backcheck.

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Yes, the Blackhawks are winning because of defense.

It doesn't get people talking. It doesn't get you on SportsCenter. It doesn't lend itself to marketing campaigns.

Defense isn't fun, it isn't flashy, and it doesn't elicit a standing ovation.

No, the spin-o-rama gets you publicity, lifts people out of their seats and lights up Twitter.

All defense does is win you games -- and Stanley Cups.

The Hawks are the best defensive team in hockey, and from a responsibility standpoint throughout the roster, so far this season no team is close. The commitment is extremely unselfish -- forwards sacrificing offensive chances to ensure they have numbers defensively -- and it's extremely impressive.

The Hawks lead the NHL in goals against (1.79) and are fourth in goals (3.10). Last year the Hawks were seventh in the league in goals (2.92) but only 22nd in goals against (2.82), having now cut down by a goal a game, a ridiculous improvement.

A year ago, the Cup champs -- the Kings -- were second in goals against, and the year before last, the Hawks were fifth in goals and 13th in goals against, while the two best teams preventing goals, Vancouver and Boston, played in the Cup finals.

The Hawks (16-0-3) have basically won two games this year because of offense, the first Phoenix game (6-4 on Jan. 20) and the first San Jose game (5-3 on Feb. 5), which was really Corey Crawford having a bad 10 minutes and then getting it together. The defense was actually pretty good that night.

In 19 games, the Hawks have allowed more than 2 goals in regulation three times. You read that right. They have allowed more than 2 goals in regulation three times in 19 games.


It goes without saying -- though we'll say it anyway -- that you have to get great goaltending, and the Hawks have had it from two goaltenders this season. But it's also responsibility from the forwards and it's defensemen handling the puck with confidence and making the right plays in their own end.

The addition of Johnny Oduya has, for all intents and purposes, upgraded four positions on defense.

Oduya as a No. 3 is an improvement over last year's Nick Leddy defensively, and Oduya's presence has brought Niklas Hjalmarsson back to the level he was playing at three years ago, so the Hawks are better at both spots on the second unit.

With less pressure, Leddy has improved his defensive game in the third pair and he's playing bottom-six forwards instead of top six every night, giving him the chance to focus on his offensive game, while Michal Rozsival in the final spot has been better than Steve Montador, Sami Lepisto, Sean O'Donnell or take your pick.

So, in essence, the Hawks have four better defensemen than a season ago, and that's undoubtedly the biggest reason the Hawks are playing better hockey than they have the last two years.

Your best offensive players still have to be your best offensive players, but the better the team plays defensively, the less time they spend in their own end, and the less energy they have to expend defensively. The more the forwards get back and help, the more the defense can step into passing lanes, and the quicker the transition back to offense.

Add it all up and the Hawks are blocking more shots, allowing fewer shots and giving up fewer goals.

That is a great recipe for winning in the NHL, and the Hawks are doing it better than anyone right now.

Believe it or not, they're probably going to lose a game in regulation at some point this season, maybe even two, and they'll have some rough patches and some injuries.

But now the Hawks know what they can do and they know how they can win, and this will be easy to remember when they need to fall back on it.

If the Hawks do this in the postseason, they have a chance again to go a very long way.

• Hear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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