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Blackhawks looking good, need to look uglier

They have the flashy scorers, but do they have the gritty defenders?



The Blackhawks have a team of young offensive talents who play the game beautifully. I've often said nothing is uglier than October hockey—unless it's November basketball—but the Hawks have been fluid from the start in rising to the top of the National Hockey League Central Division standings.

In one game against the Anaheim Ducks, the Hawks' Patrick Kane—out to fulfill his own pledge to become one of the game's elite players this season at the age of 23—pulled off a spin-o-rama assist sure to make his career highlight reel whenever he retires. He skated down the right wing, pirouetted in the manner of the Hawks' spritely Denis Savard 30 years ago, and dealt a no-look backhand pass across the goal crease to Marian Hossa, who calmly deflected it into the open net.

Yet it should be remembered that the Hawks' Stanley Cup championship squad of two years ago—which included the same basic core of offensive talent—was also a team prepared to dim its flash to get things done, frequently deploying the more slovenly dump-and-chase style and crashing the net to swat in goals in whatever way possible. They were also gritty defenders, especially with Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Sopel selflessly laying out their bodies to block shots.

This season, for all their early success, the Hawks have displayed more flash than grit. They've developed a tendency to surrender leads, or fall behind early, thus forcing their offense to save them, as when the Hawks scored four goals in the third period in Anaheim to beat the Ducks toward the end of the annual early extended road trip while the circus is in town.

There's no denying it makes for exciting and sometimes lovely hockey. Down 3-0 at home last week to the Phoenix Coyotes, the Hawks rallied to tie the game, with captain Jonathan Toews scoring twice and then assisting on the third. Reunited with Kane, who had spent the early part of the season centering another line, they came in on a 2-on-1, with Toews on the left wing and Kane drifting backward toward the right goal post. Toews got the defenseman to commit, then skated by the sprawled defender and slid a perfect pass to Kane, who slapped it past the goaltender. Yet the Hawks lost that game in a shootout. Better, if only barely, was the following game in New York against the Islanders. The Hawks took a 2-0 lead, with Hossa scoring the first and then assisting on the second, slipping what TV announcer Pat Foley called a "mattress pass," for how smooth and flat it was, to Patrick Sharp, who knocked it home. Yet the Hawks again gave up the lead and had to win it in overtime, when Sharp converted a Hossa rebound.

It's not a recipe for success in the playoffs. As the Bulls proved during the Michael Jordan era, and the Hawks reminded fans two years ago, it's defense that wins championships. The Hawks are a beautiful team, but they know they'll have to start winning ugly as the Stanley Cup playoffs approach in the new year.

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