The Blackhawks have a unique style, and it has consistently been difficult for other teams to defend against or replicate with any sort of sustained success. However, that hasn’t stopped them from trying.
The key to this style of offense is every player’s ability to play aggressively in the offensive zone while being equally responsible defensively. Let’s face it, every player in the NHL simply can’t do both of those things effectively, and certainly most teams do not have as many players adept at this particular skill set as the Blackhawks do. Many players are either offensively gifted, or defensively reliable and provide limited offensive pop.
The Dallas Stars are probably the closest in terms of their forwards, but they are lacking on players that can play this style from the blueline apart from perhaps Johnny Oduya (a former Blackhawk) and John Klingberg (though he is currently injured).
Of course, the Blackhawks really started to find success with this method when one of the league’s more gifted offensive weapons started to really develop his defensive game and learned not to always look for the pass first. That player is Patrick Kane, but he is not the only player that has changed his game to fit into the Blackhawks game plan.
Defense Creates Offense
Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson have all learned that the best way to keep teams off balance is to never stop moving. They don’t play from the point and wait for the puck to move to them, they are constantly cycling through the zone looking for it as they engage in the team’s offensive efforts shift after shift.
One defenseman lingers near the blue line while another rotates with the forward group creating a lot of movement for opponents to track. As one blueliner moves into the play, a forward will swing back and protect the zone with the other defenseman. The key is that all five players are in constant motion buzzing through the zone making a man-on-man defense nearly impossible for the opposing team to execute successfully. Which ultimately forces teams to adapt to the Blackhawks game, both unsettling and exhausting when it is not how they are accustomed to playing night after night.
For Keith and Seabrook, the transition was simpler. Both are offensively minded and play exceptionally well defensively. For Hjalmarsson, offense is not second nature, he is much more apt to get in front of shots and clear pucks in the danger zone, but he is a great point man who moves the puck effectively. When called upon, Hjalmarsson has a blistering shot, but he prefers to move the puck or stop the opposing teams motion as his teammates rotate through the zone which creates gaps for his linemates. However, there are few defensemen who are tougher than Hammer.
Of course, all of the defensemen are expected to get into this kind of rhythm, but it is a much easier transition for young players just finding their way in the NHL like Trevor van Riemsdyk or Erik Gustafsson. They are not learning something new or foreign after years of playing a certain way in the NHL.
Steep Learning Curve
For veteran defensemen (and forwards as well) coming into the system, it can be a bit of a culture shock as they learn to adopt a brand new system that is in nearly every way as foreign as a brand new language. Of course, some, like Trevor Daley and Rob Scuderi are simply unable to adapt, but Christian Ehrhoff in his brief time with Chicago has looked like he was made for this system.
Between that and the PP minutes, you can tell Q has taken a shine to Ehrhoff. https://t.co/vuhh02IaBm
— Chris Dubiel (@c_dubiel44) March 4, 2016
Ehrhoff is a responsible defender, but he is also quick to jump into the offense with a solid shot and he doesn’t hesitate to take offensive opportunities as they present themselves. In addition, he is a heads up defenseman with a great sense of where his teammates are on the ice.
Part of what has made coach Quenneville’s system so effective is that there are no major holes offensively or defensively once they enter the zone and the constant movement as they cycle the puck can be exhausting to teams not designed to play this style of hockey. In addition, the flurry of motion makes it much harder for teams to hit players and turn the puck back out of their zone.
The Anaheim Ducks were pretty effective at landing hits in the Western Conference Finals last season, but they weren’t as effective at stopping the Blackhawks engine as they just adapted and found ways to keep the puck in motion. It helps that the Blackhawks maintain a high level of fitness that has also been a hallmark of the Chicago Blackhawks in Quenneville’s years, and every player has wholeheartedly bought into that routine.
Ultimately, the hits became expended energy that eventually proved costly for the Ducks as the Blackhawks simply outlasted their bruising counterplay. No one displayed that stamina better than Keith who Ryan Kesler believed he could simply wear out.
Threat Level Red
Quenneville’s system takes three offensive weapons and turns them into five, as the defenseman are just as likely to put a shot on net as the forwards. If they misfire, guys like Jonathan Toews, Andrew Ladd, Andrew Shaw, and Artem Anisimov are almost always waiting to capitalize on second chances.
The Blackhawks approach has been especially effective this season as Artemi Panarin and Kane in particular often move the puck and dangle like the NHL’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt at all that the team boasts two of the best, and most balanced top two lines in the league heading into the playoffs with Toews, Ladd, Marian Hossa, Panarin, Kane, and Anisimov. Each player is dangerous any time the puck lands on their tape. What is more frightening is that a guy like Teuvo Teravainen is waiting on the third line. On any other team, he’d be a top six forward.
The threat comes not only from their offensive skill level but their ability to keep plays in motion while protecting the puck until they have the space to fire a shot. There are virtually no glaring liabilities on the top two lines.
Hossa’s offense isn’t what it used to be a few years ago, but there are few players that are as adept at hanging onto the puck under heavy pressure. He may have to work a little harder, but he is always contributing to the team’s offensive assault. And Hossa does have a funny way of finding another level in the playoffs, regardless of the mileage from yet another season, and this year he is going to be well rested.
The Weeks Ahead
In the weeks leading into the playoffs, the Blackhawks will be adding back one of their key penalty killers in Marcus Kruger (expected late March). His presence has been sorely missed as the PK has been floundering in his absence. Fortunately, their power play unit has been on fire, but having some balance on special teams will be a big help as the Playoffs near.
Another key factor is that among the other teams in the division, the Blackhawks are only facing four playoff teams while others will still face as many as eleven as the season comes to a close. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Blackhawks can let their foot off the gas. The race for the playoffs is still very much up in the air with six of the seven central division teams in the hunt for a spot.
Worth noting:#Blackhawks play just four teams currently in the playoff picture in their last 13.
Blues play 8.
Stars play 11.
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) March 12, 2016
Currently, the Stars and St. Louis (2nd) are tied with 91 points and the Blackhawks sit three points back in third, but any one of them could finish as the top team in the West. The Blackhawks would very much like to have that home-ice advantage throughout the first few rounds, with only the Washington Capitals in a position to have that leverage in the Stanley Cup Final should the two teams meet.
The Blackhawks fully intend to be the team coming out of the West, home-ice or not. There is no easy path to the Cup, but this team is battle tested and loaded for a deep run.
Kristi is a long time hockey fan who grew up in, and around hockey rinks across the United States and Canada. A native Chicagoan, Loucks has always been an avid Blackhawks fan. Kristi also covers the Chicago Cubs and writes suspense thrillers, when not covering the Chicago Blackhawks. Follow Kristi on twitter @louckske