The Chicago Blackhawks have more offensive talent than any team in the Western Conference, but the primary reason why this franchise is just one win away from another Stanley Cup Final appearance is its remarkable defensive performance during the playoffs.
Chicago took a stranglehold on its conference finals matchup against the Los Angeles Kings with a 3-2 victory at the Staples Center on Thursday to take a 3-1 series lead.
The Blackhawks played brilliant defensive hockey in Game 4, which is really impressive when you consider the fact that top shut-down defenseman Duncan Keith missed the contest because he was suspended for a high stick on Kings forward Jeff Carter in Game 3.
Throughout the conference finals, the Blackhawks have done a tremendous job of defending the Kings' top playmakers, including Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter and Dustin Penner.
Los Angeles has averaged only two goals per game in the playoffs, the fewest of the four conference finalists. The Blackhawks' bottom-six forward group, including players such as Michal Handzus, Viktor Stalberg and Andrew Shaw, have outplayed their Kings counterparts, which has put a lot of pressure on Los Angeles' top two lines to dominate offensively.
As soon as Carter, Brown, Penner and Kopitar skate over the blue line and into the attacking zone, Chicago's defensemen have been aggressive in taking away their time and space needed to create offense for themselves and good scoring chances for their teammates.
Chicago forwards who play a solid two-way game each night, including captain Jonathan Toews and star winger Marian Hossa, back-check consistently and play physical on each shift. They track back into the defensive zone to break up passes and force turnovers, which is why Los Angeles has 29 giveaways in four games.
As the chart below shows, these four Kings forwards, who all played key roles in the team's championship run in last year's playoffs, have not made a huge impact offensively in this series.
As a team, the Kings have only attempted 25.5 shots per game in the conference finals, which is a great number for Chicago. Whenever a team's goaltender only has to face 20-25 shots each game, its chances of winning go up significantly.
Not only have the Blackhawks prevented the Kings from making starting goaltender Corey Crawford work hard for 60 minutes, the shots they are allowing are mostly from the outside. When the Kings are able to skate within 10 feet of Crawford's net or get into the slot, Chicago is willing to risk injury and block shots.
The Blackhawks have blocked 12 shots per game in this series, and one player who has been magnificent defensively is Niklas Hjalmarsson. He has accounted for more than a quarter of the team's blocked shots (13-of-48) versus the Kings and is playing at an elite level in the postseason.
With Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya excelling at both ends of the ice, in addition to the impressive performances of top-pairing defensemen Brent Seabrook and Keith, the Blackhawks have two pairings capable of shutting down the opposing teams' most highly skilled forward.
This kind of depth is why the Blackhawks are so strong defensively, and this was on display in Game 3 when third-pairing veteran Michal Rozsival played a playoff-high in minutes and still performed at an impressive level.
Rozsival and the rest of the Chicago blue line have also done wonderful work on the penalty kill. Los Angeles is not a good offensive team at even strength (23 goals during 5-on-5 play, at least nine fewer than the three other conference finalists), which puts a lot of pressure on its power play.
Five of the Kings' power-play goals were scored in wins during this year's playoffs, which helps show the correlation between good special teams play and the defending champs earning victories.
The Blackhawks are 13-of-14 in short-handed situations during the conference finals. To achieve this success, their penalty killers have broken up passes with active sticks, put pressure on the Kings defensemen at the point and have won lots of puck battles along the boards to gain possession and clear the zone. Chicago is the only team left in the playoffs with a penalty-killing percentage above 90 percent (96.1).
To win the Stanley Cup, teams need consistently strong defense and timely scoring. Both of these components have played a huge part in the Blackhawks' success during the playoffs.
As a structured, responsible and defensively skilled team, the Blackhawks will be an incredibly tough matchup for the Boston Bruins in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Nick was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs, and he is also a credentialed writer at the 2013 NHL playoffs in Boston.