It may seem like the secret to the Chicago Blackhawks’ post-season success thus far is, well, no secret at all.
It is true that the Blackhawks’ top guns have been doing the heavy lifting. With Patrick Kane scoring as many goals (five)as the entire Minnesota Wild did in their four-game sweep over the past 10 days, it’s easy to see why the Blackhawks have punched their ticket to their third consecutive Western Conference Final, and fifth in seven seasons.
Just like those years past, the Blackhawks have gotten big performances from their biggest players. However, flying below the radar is the Blackhawks’ depth at forward, which has been, and continues to be, their opponents’ silent killer.
This year, it’s Andrew Desjardins, Marcus Kruger, and Andrew Shaw. In seasons past, you may have seen the likes of Ben Smith, Michael Frolik, and if you jog your memory enough, Colin Fraser and Tomas Kopecky.
Their statistics don’t look all that impressive from the outside looking in: Just three goals and seven points in 12 games thus far doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s what the fourth-line does without the puck that makes them successful.
The Blackhawks’ fourth unit has been all over the opposition at times this post-season, smothering their defense with a punishing forecheck that more often than not, results in some physical contact. The fourth-line’s hungriness can be directly attributed to the Nashville Predators’ defense slowing down later in their first-round series, giving the Blackhawks’ shooters a little more room to maneuver in the offensive zone.
Though it certainly isn’t expected from them, the fourth-line has a habit of finding offense when the team needs it most. Andrew Desjardins’ lone marker of the playoffs thus far, helping spark a Blackhawks’ comeback in Game One of the quarter-finals, is a great example.
On the defensive side of the puck, mistakes are few and far between for the fourth unit. Though their stats aren’t stellar, one has to take into account the amount of time the fourth-line starts their shift in the defensive zone. Throw in some penalty-kill time, and you have bottom-six players playing bigger roles than any of their counterparts across the league.
In a tight-checking Game Three against the Wild, where the Blackhawks’ opening goal turned out to be the game-winner, Kruger was winning faceoffs at a 55% rate, and going 4-for-7 when matched up against Minnesota’s top centerman, Mikko Koivu.
Oddly enough, Desjardins is turning out to be the Blackhawks’ best trade-deadline pickup, even though the Blackhawks took one of the biggest names off the ‘trade bait’ board in early March with the acquisition of Antoine Vermette. Though Vermette has found his groove in the post-season, it’s Desjardins’ quick chemistry with his line-mates that has the Blackhawks looking dangerous no matter who is on the ice.
Andrew Shaw’s struggles this season have been well-documented, to say the least. However, it seems that the former third-line center has found a fit on the wing of the fourth-line, for now: It’s a logical spot considering the rest of the depth chart, and it has paid dividends for both head coach Joel Quenneville and Shaw himself, who has five points in 12 playoff games.
Looking back at the Blackhawks’ two most recent Stanley Cup wins in 2010 and 2013, one will start to see a pattern forming: four lines of dangerous, defensively sound forwards. Half-way to Lord Stanley in 2015, this group has all the markings of a true championship-caliber fourth-line. If they can continue this play for the next 8, some more silver can certainly be in the Blackhawks’ future.
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