Rozner: Blackhawks' young defense getting education
You don't compete in the NHL -- really compete -- without a top four defense as good as the best teams in the game.
That's it. That's the story winners tell with rings. It begins and ends there.
Puck possession is a great narrative, but unless you've got mobile defensemen who are tough enough to take the hits and make the plays, you're not going to break out, you don't gain the neutral zone and you don't find the offensive blue line with the puck.
So much for puck possession.
That's what this season has been about for the Blackhawks, trying to find those guys, but you don't develop defensemen without playing them.
They're like young starting pitchers. You collect as many as you can, it takes years to mature and then you hope you have enough of them.
Anyone who says size and hits don't matter has never been hit by a large human. And unless you've been chased down into your own corner by a guy 30 pounds heavier, moving at full speed on the forecheck, well, there's really no describing it.
It's what makes guys like Nick Leddy so valuable today and it's what made Duncan Keith a Hall of Famer and very likely the most valuable of all the Hawks players during their Stanley Cup runs.
You saw it last week as the Hawks lost two of three to Nashville, and on the season were able to win just a game out of eight against the Preds.
After the Hawks fell 3-1 Friday night, Jeremy Colliton talked about the four young defensemen who dressed against Nashville -- and took a beating.
"They've got a big team and they come hard on the forecheck," Colliton said. "They're big, and where they're not big, they're fast. They don't give you a lot of time to make plays and they finish every check.
"It's not fun to go back for pucks against a team like that and it's hard to make plays when you're under that kind of pressure. Obviously, we have to find ways to do it anyway. At times we did. We'll take that experience and get better."
These minutes are valuable for the kids. Pressure-packed games also help down the road, but the loss Friday essentially ended their playoff hopes, barring a ridiculous run by the Hawks and a complete meltdown by the two clubs ahead of them chasing that fourth spot.
"That's a veteran team over there. They know how to play and how to grind and tighten up when they get a lead," Colliton said. "It's important for us to understand what we have to do to break through."
That's the other side of it. On the rare occasions the Hawks were able to get through a clogged neutral zone and into the offensive end, they didn't stay very long.
"They have a style that's hard for us," Colliton said. "We didn't make as many plays in the second half of the game. It took us a little too long to get through in transition. They were able to get set and make it hard."
The Preds do play a great five-man defense, something the Hawks also need to learn from.
"We had a tough time coming together on the forecheck to have two, three guys able to pressure," Colliton said. "A lot of times it was a one-man forecheck and they were able to break us."
Well, sure, if guys are standing around waiting for others to do the work, the puck is already going the other way.
"When we had a chance to play in the offensive zone, it seemed like we couldn't protect the puck long enough to establish ourselves down there and break them down," Colliton said. "I thought we had a lot of the play the first 30 minutes. And when they got the lead, they captured the momentum and made it hard for us to get it back.
"They tightened up a lot. Made it hard for us to get to the neutral zone. They got some big bodies and they're physical. We had a tough time sustaining possession in the offensive zone for long enough to break them down."
You have to admire the Preds' commitment to playing defense. It's not the most exciting game for the players, but winning is exciting.
In order to handle that system as an opponent, you either need speed or size -- preferably both -- to get the puck deep and get possession, but it really begins in your own end with a defensive group that can handle the pressure and get the puck moving north with a chance to make plays.
No part of it is easy, but it starts on defense. You have to build up a deep group and hope to find four of them.
The Hawks are trying.