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Duncan Keith defends against Edmonton’s Milan Lucic during a game on Feb. 11. (AP Photo)

Staying out of the box has been key to Blackhawks’ success

SHARE Staying out of the box has been key to Blackhawks’ success
SHARE Staying out of the box has been key to Blackhawks’ success

Sometimes the only thing to do as a defenseman when a guy like Connor McDavid is flying full speed in your direction is to put your stick on him. Hook him. Slash him. Trip him. Give him the old can-opener move. Just stop him somehow.

“You watch old clips of Brian Leetch, and he’d make a great play by putting his stick in between the guy’s stick and his arm, or putting his stick between a guy’s legs,”

defenseman Duncan Keith said. “But that would be a penalty now, where before, that’s what they taught. You’re not really allowed to use your stick the way you used to be able to use your stick to prevent goals and to defend. Now you’ve got to be able to skate and use your speed.”

And few teams do that as well as the Hawks. For all the keys to their success over the years — top-end talent up front, well-structured team defense, excellent goaltending, and all sorts of intangibles — a very important one goes largely unnoticed: They stay out of the penalty box. With 196 penalties in 65 games, the Hawks are 29th out of 30 teams. In fact, they’ve been 27th, 28th or 29th in the league in penalties for eight consecutive years, dating back to the 2009-10 season, when they won their first Stanley Cup of the modern era.

In a league in which goals are at a premium, limiting opposing power plays is crucial.

“The coaches emphasize it,” defensive forward Dennis Rasmussen said. “We try to work with our sticks on the ice and not take stupid penalties. We work with our sticks instead of just using our bodies. You’ve still got to use your body to separate guys from the puck sometimes, but we’re pretty smart about it.”

It goes beyond just being smart, though. For years, the Hawks have been one of the top puck-possession teams in the league, and if you have the puck, you’re usually not clutching, grabbing, hooking, tripping or retaliating. And beyond that, the Hawks simply aren’t a very physical team. They’re built on skill, not brawn, so there are fewer opportunities to take penalties such as interference and boarding.

Hits isn’t a terribly reliable stat, varying from arena to arena, but the Hawks are officially dead last in the category, with 928 of them — less than half what the league-leading Los Angeles Kings have. Brian Campbell said the Hawks would like to ratchet up the physical play with the playoffs drawing near, but it’ll never be a focal point.

“It hasn’t really been our identity to just run through teams,” Jonathan Toews said. “Other teams have tried to run through us, and it doesn’t necessarily always work. We focus on having the puck and playing with the puck, and then you don’t have to worry about hitting guys or taking stick penalties or trying not to get caught cheating.”

Defensively, the Hawks focus on taking away shooting lanes, and blocking shots. Top defensemen such as Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and newly reacquired Johnny Oduya manage to maintain a tight gap between themselves and the puck-handler by body-positioning, smart stick-work and elite skating. The less they have to put their stick on an opponent’s body, the less time their team will spend short-handed.

And as the Hawks have shown over the years, that’s a good way to ensure long-term success.

“We’re a disciplined team and the coaches stress that,” Keith said. “It’s no secret you don’t want to be on the penalty-kill all day long. It’s just not a recipe for success.”

Follow me on Twitter

@MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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