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Solid defense not enough for Hawks' fourth line

CHICAGO -- Ben Smith, Marcus Kruger and Joakim Nordstrom are hockey players. They want to score at least the occasional goal like everyone else. Defensive celebrations just aren’t as fun.

Smith, Kruger and Nordstrom, the trio which comprises the Chicago Blackhawks’ fourth line, have been handling their primary responsibilities of starting in the defensive zone more than any line in the league, facing opponents’ top players and not allowing goals. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is satisfied with the job the line has done.

The issue is Smith, Kruger and Nordstrom aren’t fine with it. They desire more. Specifically, they’d like to provide more offensive production. The line has yet to score in 2015, and their individual slumps are mounting.

“We want to do more,” Smith said after practice Thursday. “That’s the main thing. Getting to play against some other teams’ top players is fine and well. Done a decent job of that. But we want to contribute offensively and be even better in the D zone and try to bring more energy and play better for our team, help our team win.

“I think if our line can contribute a bit more, it’ll be a lot easier on the other guys who have been carrying the load quite a bit throughout the year. We’re definitely looking to get better and help the team more than we have been.”

Smith’s goal drought is the shortest of the three this season, but he still hasn’t scored in 18 games. Nordstrom is goal-less in 24 consecutive games and Kruger in 26 games.

The lack of scoring wouldn’t be a sore spot for the line if the Blackhawks were winning every game. But with the team’s play being inconsistent over the last month and having back-to-game games where the Blackhawks were shut out just, the line feels like it’s not doing enough.

“We don’t come up with a lot of points and have been losing too many games lately,” Kruger said. “But we know we can be better. Everyone here can be better. As our line, we have to get better here and find ways to maybe help the team in games when we don’t score a lot.”

The line has been keeping opponents from scoring a lot, and that’s what matters most to Quenneville. He asks a lot of the line, and it comes through usually.

Nordstrom, Kruger and Smith all rank in the league’s top five in defensive zone faceoff starts. Nordstrom has a 60.3 defensive zone start percentage and is followed by Kruger at 52 percent and Smith at 51.9 percent. To compare, Smith has 292 defensive faceoff starts and Kruger has 280 this season, while teammates Jonathan Toews has 189 and Bryan Bickell has 93.

The line is also often matched up against the opponent’s top line. When the Blackhawks played the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday, the line often faced Zach Parise and his linemates. When the Blackhawks met the Anaheim Ducks recently, the line had to defend Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf on many shifts.

Despite those two elements of often starting in the defensive zone and playing against top players, the line holds its own in possession and certainly in goals against. Kruger has a 51.8 Corsi percentage, Smith is at 50 percent and Nordstrom at 47.9 percent. In goals against per 60 minutes, Smith is first on the team and 19th in the league at 1.30, Kruger is at 1.73 and Nordstrom is at 1.75. Of the league’s players who start more than 40 percent in the defensive zone, there is only one player, the Nashville Predators’ Paul Gaustad, who has a better goals-against average than Smith and a total of eight players who have a better average than Kruger and Nordstrom.

Those reasons, plus Smith and Kruger being the team's top penalty-killing forwards, are why Quenneville isn’t sweating the line’s offensive play.

“They’ve been fine defensively,” Quenneville said Thursday. “They probably start 60 or 75 percent of their shifts in their own end, and they’re usually out there against some tough matchups. So, that responsibility of checking goes hand-in-hand with them killing penalties. So, whether they’re productive or not offensively, I think their responsibility defensively, they’ve been doing their job. You know, sometimes they go in for you and sometimes they don’t. Certainly, they’re not giving up much and some pretty tough assignments in there as well.”

The line gets that.

“You’re always wanting to help the team with scoring goals,” said Kruger, who has been on the ice for 13 goals for and 16 goals against in 5-on-5 situations this season. “Obviously that’s something you try improve and think how to get better at that. At the same time, what [Quenneville] wants from us, what the coaches expect us playing is on the defensive side of things. That’s what comes first for us, I think.”

Smith and Kruger are especially bothered by their lack of production this season because they had the same defensive duties last season, but were still able to contribute offensively. Smith had 14 goals and 26 points in 75 games last season and has five goals and nine points through 51 games this season. Kruger had eight goals and 28 points in 81 games last season and has four goals and 12 points in 51 games this season. They most often played with Brandon Bollig this season.

Smith and Kruger’s problem hasn’t been shooting this season. They are both averaging more shots per 60 minutes than they did a season ago. But their shooting percentages are down.

Smith had a 9.07 shooting percentage in 5-on-5 play last season and is at 5.38 this season. Kruger had a 7.33 shooting percentage last season and is at 4.98 this season.

Kruger thought he understood what had to be fixed.

“I think it’s a lot about confidence,” Kruger said. “That’s something you get from doing good things. You get a lot of confidence, so that’s maybe a lack of that maybe. But we just need to maybe stay a little bit patient. When we get out there and get chances be confident about doing stuff. That’s how you gain confidence as well.

“Maybe lately the first priority has been playing good D and get out of our end and get the puck deep maybe. But obviously we want to help the team more than what we’ve done lately. That’s something me, myself, can be a lot better in that area.”