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SportsMonday: Blackhawks Defense Broncos-Like

Fellow Blackhawks fans, work with me here.

It is time for more people to do a better job dispensing credit when the boys of winter post yet another stellar defensive performance. Our latest opportunity to do so comes in the aftermath of the home team shutting down the St. Louis Blues on Sunday night 2-0.

The victory enabled the Hawks to break out, at least a little bit, of a two-game plus stretch (2-1 and 4-0 losses to the Lightning and Panthers, respectively) of sluggish play with the puck. After scoring only a single goal in the seven periods leading into the first intermission Sunday, the Hawks finally busted out with two goals in the final two 20-minute time frames.

And the guys responsible were the ones who have been responsible so much of the time as their team has won 13 of its last 15 games.

That would be Artemi Panarin, with a primary assist from Patrick Kane, and Andrew Shaw, with a primary assist from Marian Hossa. In other words, it was leading lights from the team's top lines, who have done a remarkable job of sharing the scoring load of late, making it nearly impossible (except in Florida) for opposing teams to shut down the Hawks by shutting down a single No. 1 set of center and wingers.

But back to the defense: Yes, Corey Crawford recorded his career-high 7th shutout and, yes, even after backstopping his team to two Stanley Cups in the last three years, Crawford is playing even better than ever this season. And he was particularly superb in the first period, essentially making half (12) of his 25 overall saves.

But the first period also featured fantastic play from a defensive corps that got even better in the second and third, when the Hawks limited St. Louis to just six and seven shots on goal, respectively.

Of course, the usual suspects are leading the way from the back line. Duncan Keith (26:11 of ice time), Niklas Hjalmarsson (23:52) and Brent Seabrook (19:46) were all outstanding as usual. But interestingly enough, they were all 0 in the plus-minus category.

Perhaps the most exciting development of this season - okay, the second-most exciting after the emergence of Panarin as the front-runner for NHL Rookie of the Year - has been the ever improving play of young defensemen Trevor Van Riemsdyk and Erik Gustafsson. The former had a big night on Sunday, recording an assist and also being in the middle of the rush that resulted in Panarin's goal.

Gustafsson, who has particularly impressed with his absolutely unflappable nature so far, turned in more than 16 minutes of first-rate ice time. With these two rolling along, combined with veteran Michal Rozsival's continuing rock-solid play (he also had an assist Sunday), the Hawks have a six-pack of defensemen they can count on. And heck, if someone gets injured, another strong veteran blue-liner, Rob Scuderi, is waiting in the wings. He was a healthy scratch on Sunday but he and Rozsival are almost alternating in the sixth spot the last 10 games or so.

Of course, a little credit should also go to the Blues' offensive ineptitude. If they weren't failing to capitalize on a couple glorious chances in the first period, they were failing to even generate significant chances for large swaths of the last 40 minutes. There were the usual several instances in which our favorite announcer, Pat Foley, was going on and on about a Crawford save when the fact of the matter was, a Blues forward had shot the puck right into the goalie's padding.

In the end, the main thing is that the Hawks got back on track with a victory that upped their record to 33-15-4. They lead the Central Division of the Western Conference with 70 points (second place Dallas has 65). They have also played three more games than Dallas, but hey, that just means they are that much closer to the end of the marathon NHL season.

The Washington Capitals have 73 points to lead the Eastern Conference, so the Hawks can now set their sights on that. Goalie Braden Holtby has had an amazing season in front of the net for that team but something tells me that perhaps a few other defensive players have also played at least a small roll in the Capitals success so far.

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Jim "Coach" Coffman is our man on Mondays. He welcomes your comments.

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