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Commitment to defense sparks Blackhawks' offense

by Brian Hedger

CHICAGO -- The offensive skill the Chicago Blackhawks possess often overshadows what they do defensively, but that side of the rink shouldn't be taken lightly.

In fact, it's a big reason for all the accomplishments they've earned this season. The Blackhawks won the Presidents' Trophy with 77 points in 48 games and helped goalies Corey Crawford and Ray Emery earn the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed (97). Their defensive effort also is a big factor in their 3-1 lead against the Minnesota Wild in their best-of-7 Western Conference Quarterfinal.

Chicago can close the series in Game 5 on Thursday at United Center (9:30 p.m. ET, CBC, RDS2, NBCSN), but it might be a different scenario were it not for the Blackhawks' work in the defensive zone.

"The goals-against has been cut tremendously from this season to last and I think a lot of that has to do with the five guys on the ice," Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said. "I know our goaltenders have been strong all season long and I don't want to take any credit away from Corey and Ray … they've played awesome for us, but whoever's on the ice -- the three forwards and two defense -- we kind of work as a unit protecting our net blocking shots and really committing to keeping pucks out of our end. It's been a huge reason we're winning games."

It's also a reason their puck-possession game can, at times, dominate.

"It's one of those things we've stressed throughout the season … play good team defense," Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane said. "[Our] goaltending's been great and our defense has been great, but I think our forwards have been great defensively, whether it's blocking shots or trying to strip pucks and go the other way. As a forward, when you're playing good defense, usually it translates to more offensive opportunities and having the puck more."

Having the puck more, in turn, gives those skilled stars more time on offense, whether they're scoring goals or applying sustained pressure in the other end of the rink.

"That's kind of an underrated part of their game," Wild forward Zach Parise told following Minnesota's practice Thursday morning. "When they're on their game, they remind me a lot of the Detroit Red Wings. They could have the puck all game. If you lose a draw, you might not touch the puck for a whole shift, so that's what makes it so frustrating to play against. You might not touch the puck for three shifts in a row."

That's only possible, of course, if offensive-minded forwards dedicate themselves to playing at both ends of the rink.

"They've been doing a good job of it all year," Parise said. "They're tough to forecheck because their [defensemen] are so mobile, but their forwards also do a good job of being responsible when they don't have the puck."

Chicago had a similar willingness to play shut-down defense, five skaters across, in 2010 -- a season that ended with a Stanley Cup championship celebration. The following two years saw a downturn in defensive stoutness, which resulted in a pair of disappointing first-round exits.

After losing to the Phoenix Coyotes in the first round last year, a series in which the first five games were decided in overtime, the Blackhawks opted to enhance their two-way game again.

"That could be one of the differences between our team this year and our team last year," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. "You look at our lineup on paper, we're not that much different. I think there's just that higher understanding of what it takes to win games [this season]. You look at the games we won all year and why we had a successful regular season, it was just because we were willing to do those little things and not everyone was just thinking about offense all the time. We know there's two sides of the puck and you've got to play on both sides."

Keeping that mentality for the rest of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, however long they last, likely will be crucial to another deep run for the Blackhawks. It's already helped them get wins in three of the first four games against the Wild despite not one goal or assist by Toews and top-line left wing Brandon Saad.

"You can't score goals without everybody and you can't keep them out of your net without everybody," Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook said. "That's the philosophy we've had. It takes a team effort. It's been great for the whole team to buy in and think defense-first, and that's going to be a key for us now, going forward [into Game 5]."

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