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Blackhawks Down: Team’s defense has received plenty of criticism during skid, but answer might be more offense

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Updated: March 11, 2012 8:40AM

DENVER — Forget about four-line balance or even an assigned checking line. Coach Joel Quenneville has no other options but to empower his top two lines with all his top weapons.

As much as the Blackhawks have to defend better, they have to score, too. And Quenneville isn’t going to end the Hawks’ puck-possession style any time soon.

“I’m not so worried about our puck-possession game,” Quenne-ville said Wednesday before the Hawks left Denver for San Jose, Calif. “It’s more of our defending. I think if we defended better, we’d have the puck more.”

Still, if the Hawks ran their puck-possession style better, they’d be able to compensate for their defensive woes. More and more, it looks like the Hawks don’t have enough of the personnel to play that way every game.

Earlier in the season, the offensive onslaught led by Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp hid the Hawks’ ineptitude when they didn’t have the puck. Their production put pressure on opponents, and it resulted in a lot of points.

Recently, Toews has centered Hossa and Viktor Stalberg, and Dave Bolland has played between Sharp and Kane as Quenneville loads up his top lines. The Hawks are counting on them to do a lot, offensively and defensively.

What happens if they’re hurt or don’t produce enough at either end? You get a disheartening six-game losing streak.

General manager Stan Bowman has made finding a defenseman (or two) a priority by the trade deadline. League sources say the Hawks are trying to find blue-liners who skate and move the puck well — a must in their system — but it will be tough because they’re coveted. Ex-Hawk Chris Campoli (Montreal Canadiens) appears to be the best available.

The overall market for defensemen also has dwindled after Tim Gleason (Carolina Hurricanes) and Francois Beauchemin (Anaheim Ducks) re-signed with their out-of-contention teams. But plenty of old, hulking types such as Andy Sutton (Edmonton Oilers) and Hal Gill (Canadiens) appear to be available.

“There’s a lot of teams looking for a defenseman, so I think probably a few weeks ago people wouldn’t have expected Gleason to be signed,” Bowman said recently. “We’re going to listen to whatever’s out there.”

In other words, Bowman’s best option might be targeting the best forwards available to help out his stars and trusting in his offseason judgments when he added veteran defensemen Steve Montador and Sean O’Donnell.

The play of defensemen is essential to the Hawks’ style, but so is having forwards who support one another along the boards, win puck battles and have the skill and patience to control the puck in all three zones.

Players such as Ales Hemsky (Oilers) and Derek Roy (Buffalo Sabres) could help offensively, and even ex-Hawk Tuomo Ruutu (Hurricanes) can be considered an upgrade over struggling forwards Michael Frolik and Bryan Bickell.

If the Hawks are committed to playing a puck-possession style, shot differential can be a good indicator. When the Hawks won the Stanley Cup, they averaged 34.1 shots and allowed 25.1 with Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and Troy Brouwer on the roster. Last season, despite still having defenseman Brian Campbell, it dropped to a plus-3 differential, which is a shot better than this season.

The Hawks spent their entire practice Wednesday working on the power play, which has gone 1-for-15 in their six losses. But they also held team meetings addressing their “team game.”

“We’ve had success with [the puck-possession style] this season,” Sharp said. “We’re just in a tough stretch right now. There are a lot of things we can do better. We talked about that today. It’s just a matter of sticking with it.”

But they will lean on their stars.

“We have to help the team win hockey games,” Hossa said. “We need to do the little things and build on that.”

Note: Viktor Stalberg, Bryan Bickell, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Nick Leddy missed practice with the flu. Steve Montador (upper body) is doing OK, Joel Quenne-ville said.

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