Has the Chicago Blackhawks' Stellar Offense Masked Defensive Issues?

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Has the Chicago Blackhawks' Stellar Offense Masked Defensive Issues?
Bill Smith/Getty Images

The Chicago Blackhawks have an astounding accumulation of offensive talent.

They are loaded with superstars, who can dominate the scoreboard, and skilled role players, who can put the puck in the net when the game is on the line.

The Blackhawks have been trading places with the St. Louis Blues as the most explosive team in the NHL. After their 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers Jan. 8, the Blackhawks were scoring 3.59 goals per game, just behind the Blues' 3.60 goals-per-game output.

The Blackhawks' offensive skill is what usually separates them from the other elite teams in the NHL. While they couldn't get the tying goal past Henrik Lundqvist in the loss to the Rangers, they controlled the puck for the final 1:30 of clock time and fired shot after shot at the Rangers net.

New York is one of the most accomplished defensive teams in the league, but the Rangers could not get their sticks on the puck as the Blackhawks threw it around with ease and created scoring opportunity after scoring opportunity.

Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith are their leading performers. However, when you can throw in Brandon Saad, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Andrew Shaw and Nick Leddy, you have a team with the ability to light up the scoreboard. The Blackhawks have scored four or more goals 20 times this season.

Offensive talent can overcome lots of problems. However, when the regular season gets down to its crucial games and the playoffs are beckoning, it's not enough to turn the red light on. Teams have to play sharp defense when the game is on the line.

There are indications that the Blackhawks have some defensive inadequacies that could cause problems as the season moves along.

The Blackhawks are allowing 2.63 goals per game, a figure that ranks 13th in the league. The Blackhawks were far more efficient on the defensive end last year when they gave up 2.02 goals per game and ranked first in that category. 

Teams that are going to make a run at the championship must be proficient defensively. The Los Angeles Kings won the 2012 Stanley Cup and they ranked second in goals allowed during the 2011-12 season. The Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and had the second-ranked defense in 2010-11. The Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010, and they tied for fifth in goals against during the 2009-10 season.

The 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins were the last ordinary defensive team to win the Stanley Cup. They gave up 2.84 goals per game, a figure that ranked 17th in the league.

One of the most visible problems that Joel Quenneville's team is having this year is its poor performance as a penalty-killing unit. They have been among the worst teams in the league when shorthanded, as opponents are scoring 23.5 percent of the time with the man advantage. The Blackhawks rank 30th while playing with a man in the penalty box.

They have also had a bit of a problem with the health of No. 1 goalie Corey Crawford. While he is not likely to rank with the best goalies in the league in terms of goals against or save percentage, it can be argued that Crawford is this generation's version of Gerry Cheevers.

Defense matters for Stanley Cup champs
Team Year Goals against per game Ranking
Chicago Blackhawks 2013 2.02 1st
Los Angeles Kings 2011-12 2.07 2nd
Boston Bruins 2010-11 2.30 2nd
Chicago Blackhawks 2009-10 2.48 T-5th
Pittsburgh Penguins 2008-09 2.84 17th
Detroit Red Wings 2007-08 2.18 1st
Anaheim Ducks 2006-07 2.42 7th

NHL.com

Cheevers was the Bruins' top goaltender during the Bobby Orr and Don Cherry eras. The Bruins were a high-scoring bunch that also gave up quite a few goals. However, when the Bruins needed the big save to win a game, Cheevers provided it. The same holds for Crawford (17-7-5, 2.49 goals-against average, .910 save percentage).

Crawford missed nearly a month of action with a groin injury. He was replaced adequately by rookie Antti Raanta, who may be the team's goaltender of the future. However, Quenneville can't have any real confidence in Raanta's ability to play against the best teams in the league because he has yet to prove himself.

His work has been good—11-1-3 record, 2.17 GAA and .913 save percentage—but his sample size is small.

If the Blackhawks are going to repeat, it will be on the back of Crawford. He may not dominate in the goals-against category, but he will have to come up with the big saves when the game is on the line. 

But the team defense must get better. The Blackhawks have to improve their putrid penalty kill and must tighten up their defensive structure. They can't score four or more goals every game, and the defense must demonstrate that it can shut opponents down when it needs to if a second straight Stanley Cup is a realistic goal.

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