Check-first mentality propels Blackhawks back into Central race

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His hat was teal, and his sweatshirt had a San Jose Sharks logo on it, but Ben Smith still sounded very much like a member of Joel Quenneville’s Blackhawks when he talked Saturday morning about what his new team needed to do in order to be successful.

“For us, it’s mainly being in good position and trying to find a way to play strong defense, and to create our offense from that strong defense,” Smith said.

That’s Quenneville’s mantra, his single guiding principle — defense begets offense. Be smart and responsible in your own end, and the chances will come in the other end. Of course, it hasn’t hurt that his roster has been loaded over the years with high-end offensive talent, the kind of guys who can create scoring chances out of thin air.

But now that Patrick Kane, the Hawks’ driving force on offense, is sidelined until sometime in May, it’s been less of a philosophy and more of a necessity. And Quenneville is chalking up the Hawks’ unlikely 6-1-1 record dating back to the game in which Kane broke his clavicle to a renewed focus on that defense-first mentality.

“We’re not looking to outscore anybody, we’re thinking [about] checking,” Quenneville said. “We won some tight ones.”

Before Saturday’s 6-2 victory over the Sharks, the Hawks had three goals in their previous three games, and had gone two straight without an even-strength tally. The Hawks have dropped to 14th in the league in goals per game, at a pedestrian 2.78; they were second in the league each of the last two seasons at 3.18 and 3.10, respectively. In fact, the Hawks have averaged at least three goals per game and have been in the top six in the league every season since their breakout season of 2008-09.

Yet they’ve clawed back into the Central Division race these past three weeks anyway. That’s because they’ve given up just seven goals in their last five games, and have allowed two or fewer goals in seven of their last eight.

“We’re just clawing to get by,” Bryan Bickell said.

The Hawks haven’t been flawless defensively, but they’ve been effective. They’ve surrendered at least 29 shots on goal in five of their last six games, but have done a good job of keeping most of those shots on the perimeter and from the point, not in the prime scoring area in front of the net. And when the opponents do get close, Corey Crawford has bailed out his teammates time and again. He’s 5-0-1 in his last six starts, and the one loss was a 1-0 overtime game against the high-flying New York Rangers.

“We’re playing the right way,” Quenneville said. “We’re starting with [defense] first. And Crow has been solid as you could ever want.”

Of course, Quenneville would love for the offense to have more spurts like Saturday’s four-goal third period and make things easier on Crawford and the defense. To that end, the Hawks, as they always seem to be, have been emphasizing getting to the net and eschewing pretty plays for ugly goals. Five of the Hawks’ six goals on Saturday came either from close range, or with an effective screen in front of the net. Quenneville called it a “work in progress,” but said it’s getting better.

Besides, this time of year, goals are always down. There aren’t a lot of 5-4 barn-burners in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Quenneville has always judged his team on what it gives up, not what it gets. And with Kane out and the offense still finding its way, that defensive focus matters more now than ever.

“Defensively, we’ve been fine,” he said. “But scoring in our league’s been tough to come by as the season’s progressing, and I think that you’ve got to get some greasy and some ugly goals to be effective.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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