FILE - In this Dec. 5, 2013 file photo, Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith (2) controls the puck during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Minnesota Wild in St. Paul, Minn. Duncan Keith leads all NHL defensemen with 30 assists. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt, File)
CHICAGO - Forget Patrick Kane's flashy moves and Jonathan Toews' steady play. Same for the rest of the talented forwards on the Chicago Blackhawks.
Instead, check out the players who line up right behind the team's biggest stars. Chicago's athletic defencemen play a prominent role in the NHL's most potent offence.
Duncan Keith leads all NHL defencemen with 30 assists. Niklas Hjalmarsson is on pace for career highs in goals and assists. Brent Seabrook has three goals and 23 assists after he had 20 points in 47 games last season. Nick Leddy and Johnny Oduya also have provided valuable support on offence.
It's hard enough for teams to deal with the likes of Kane and Toews. Now, when Keith&Co. are coming up and taking aim, the Blackhawks turn into a goaltender's nightmare.
"I love our defence. They've been huge for us the past two seasons," forward Patrick Sharp said. "They all skate well. They all move the puck and with the forwards that we have in our locker room, we like to get it with speed and they do a good job of getting it to us. Our defence (has) been the key to our team this year."
The importance of Chicago's offensive defencemen was on full display Monday night, when the Blackhawks beat the New Jersey Devils 5-2 for their sixth win in the last eight games. Leddy helped set up Kane's tiebreaking goal in the second period, and then capped the scoring with his fifth of the season in the third. Seabrook added two assists.
It was the Blackhawks' 15th game with at least five goals, running their league-best total to 145. They also lead the NHL with an average of 2.87 points a game by their defencemen, according to STATS, a significant increase from their 2.08 average for last season's Stanley Cup-winning team.
St. Louis, which hosts Chicago on Saturday night, is next on the list with 2.64 points a game for its defencemen and 128 goals overall.
"I think as a defence corps you know that it's important that we help control the offensive goal, not just necessarily scoring points but just being in on the attack and being an extra option that might create some space for our forwards," said Keith, who also had an assist against the Devils.
Keith is one of the top contenders for the Norris Trophy after he took home the award for the NHL's top defenceman in 2010. The 30-year-old Keith, who was selected by the Blackhawks in the second round of the 2002 draft, has led the team in ice time every season since he made his debut in 2005.
He plays alongside Seabrook in Chicago's top defensive pairing.
"The two of them have been together basically since they broke into the league," said coach Joel Quenneville, a former NHL defenceman. "That's been a big part of our team. When you think about all the shifts they've played together, there's a lot of familiarity with one another and I think they complement each other for the right reasons."
That familiarity is a common theme when it comes to the Blackhawks' defencemen.
Seabrook, a first-round draft pick by Chicago in 2003, had two of the Blackhawks' biggest goals in their run to the title last season. He scored in overtime in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals against Detroit after Chicago battled back from a 3-1 series deficit, and then had another overtime winner in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals at Boston.
Hjalmarsson also was drafted by the Blackhawks and is in his seventh season with the team. The 22-year-old Leddy, a 2009 first-round selection by Minnesota, was acquired in a trade in 2010 and has played for Chicago for four seasons. Oduya came over in a February 2012 trade with Winnipeg.
"You're with a group or a linemate or a defence partner for a certain amount of time, you develop that chemistry on the ice and even off the ice," Keith said. "You become more familiar with one another and closer. I just think it helps the overall game on the ice knowing what guys tend to do out on the ice and what they want to do."
The Blackhawks (26-7-6) also have done a strong job of finding the right players for their system, which emphasizes puck possession.
The eight defencemen on Chicago's roster range in height from 6-foot (Leddy and Oduya) to 6-3 (Seabrook and Hjalmarsson) and weight from 190 pounds for Oduya to 221 for Seabrook. The top defencemen are all strong skaters who are comfortable with the puck on their stick and can cover a lot of ground in a hurry.
"The style of play fits the player and the player fits style of play," Oduya said. "I think that's important."
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap
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