Artemi Panarin

Will a reunion heat up a cold Blackhawks offense?

Will a reunion heat up a cold Blackhawks offense?

Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane together on the same line. Call it the nuclear option, or the in-case-of-emergency-break-glass combination. It can have a few nicknames but when coach Joel Quenneville resorts to putting those two together, it has only one meaning: The Blackhawks are desperately looking to boost production.

Patrick Sharp joined Toews and Kane at Tuesday’s practice as the Blackhawks continue to try and rekindle their offense. Quenneville has expressed his reluctance to go this route many times in the past, and understandably so: you’re loading up one line and limiting your forward depth quite a bit. But when you’ve reached the point when your team can’t buy a goal, you do what you gotta do.

“Right now we haven’t had the team scoring so we’re trying to get that first and maybe things will look on balance as we’re going along. But I feel if they can score and other lines can score, maybe there’s balance that way, too,” Quenneville said. “We’re just looking at any way right now to recapture what it’s like to score because we know it’s there."

The Blackhawks’ 5-on-5 scoring has been a problem for a while now. The overall stats are deceptive: through 15 games the Blackhawks have 28 goals, which places them 13th in the NHL. But 14 of those 5-on-5 goals came in their first two games against Pittsburgh and Columbus. So they’ve scored just 14 more 5-on-5 goals over their last 13 games. Ouch.

To repeat, in case of emergency…

As for the players involved, they’re ready to give it a shot again.

“You’ve got a playmaker/puck-handler, a grinder, a shooter. We all have speed, we all kind of think the same way,” Sharp said. “It’s been a while since we’ve been a unit but if that line plays next game, hopefully we can do something.”

Toews and Kane are also usually thrown together in the postseason when the Blackhawks are looking for a knockout punch. When they got together for some games last season, the usual magic wasn’t there. Last year, Kane and Artemi Panarin were the magic combo. Still, the Blackhawks need to do something to generate some offense.

“We’re always a good line the three of us. And I’ve always said when I play with Kaner I always seem to be able to disappear and he can buy himself time and space with the puck so well that I can go to the net or go to areas where the puck might show up after we get scoring chances or shots,” Toews said. “With Sharpie, he’s such a good finisher and he can just make plays and always seems to be in the open ice with the puck under control.”

Toews and Kane are together again, this time with Sharp. The glass has been broken. The Blackhawks are desperate to find answers, and getting the band back together again needs to have a ripple effect, fast.

“That's the goal: create some magic,” Kane said. “The biggest thing is we've got three good players on the line so make sure you're not standing around waiting for the other guy to do it. Go and make stuff happen yourself and when you add two players like that, good things should happen.”

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 5-1 win over Blue Jackets in Artemi Panarin's return to Chicago

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 5-1 win over Blue Jackets in Artemi Panarin's return to Chicago

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 5-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday night:

1. Brandon Saad stays hot.

We're not sure you could've scripted a better start for Saad in his second go-around with the Blackhawks. Fresh off a hat trick on Opening Night, the 24-year-old winger found himself on the scoresheet again — and early — when he potted Chicago's second goal (on the power play) against his former club 6:04 into the first period.

He also added an assist, and finished with seven shot attempts (five on goal) in the victory. 

"His quickness is the thing that's been very noticeable," Joel Quenneville said of Saad. "Quick to pucks, quick to beating the guy to the net. That line was excellent again tonight."

2. Nick Schmaltz injured again, and it'll sideline him this time.

For the second straight game, the Blackhawks lost their second-line center to an upper-body injury. Only this time, it will force him to miss some action. Just 1:33 into the game, Schmaltz got sandwiched in between two defenders charging hard to the net while Patrick Kane was receiving a pass that he eventually scored on.

Schmaltz stayed down for a little bit, then needed help from trainers to get off the ice. He did not return, despite coming back on the bench briefly later in the period, before heading back to the dressing room for good.

Quenneville said after the game that Schmaltz will "probably" not go on the team's upcoming road trip in Toronto and Montreal: "We're thinking maybe Thursday" for a potential return.

3. Jonathan Toews is on the board.

Just about everyone scored in the Blackhawks' season-opening 10-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, except The Captain. That changed in Game No. 2, when Toews buried home his only shot of the game from new/old linemate Saad for his first goal of the season.

Toews also tallied an assist, and won an offensive zone draw that immediately led to a Richard Panik goal to get all three players from that line a tally.

Toews hasn't been shy about his intention to re-establish himself as an elite center, both on defense and offense, but especially the latter. If his line can continue playing the way it has been early on, his offensive numbers will start to come on a consistent basis.

4. Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin just fine without each other (sort of).

Remember how some were wondering how these two would survive without each other? Well, they're doing just fine.

Kane added a goal and an assist in his second game, increasing his point total to six, while Panarin set a Blue Jackets record by recording three points in his team debut Friday night.

Panarin didn't get on the scoresheet against his former team, but his line had solid even-strength possession numbers — although he was on the ice for two of the Blackhawks' goals.

Do they miss playing with each other and toying with opponents? Sure. But they're both superstars in their own right, and don't need each other to prove just how great they are individually.

But they hit the city of Chicago right in the feels after Panarin shared the exchange — through an interpreter — he had with Kane at center ice during pregame warmups: "Patrick came by and said, 'Hey, I miss you' and I said 'I miss you too' and off we went. And then we lost 5-1."

5. Jan Rutta rewarded with first career NHL goal.

An underrated part of the Blackhawks' success in their first two games this season has been their defense. In 120 minutes, they haven't had any glaring defensive lapses or spent a lot of time in their own end.

Rutta, a 27-year-old rookie, is blending right in. He's registered a point in consecutive games to kick off his NHL career, and was rewarded with his first goal Saturday after pinching in to receive a nice backhand pass by Kane before wristing it past Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo.

Rutta also owns a plus-7 rating, which may not be a great stat but at least it indicates good things are happening when he's on the ice.

"Every game I’ve seen him play I’ve been impressed with him," Quenneville said. "It was a special pass that he received from Kaner on the play, nice finish but he does a lot of good things. His anticipation, his reach, his gap, his thinking are all high end. Looks like he’s been around here the way he plays the game. He gives us some experience back there the way he handles his own game."

Blackhawks showing why trading Artemi Panarin for Brandon Saad was necessary

Blackhawks showing why trading Artemi Panarin for Brandon Saad was necessary

The Artemi Panarin video tribute rolled during the first period on Saturday, the United Center crowd cheering and Panarin acknowledging the applause. It was a strong appreciation and understandably so; in two seasons here Panarin was outstanding, the Russian equal to line mate Patrick Kane in skill and creativity.

On the other bench was Brandon Saad, whom the Blackhawks reacquired in exchange for Panarin in late June. It was a surprise move – and to the two players involved. The Blackhawks loved Panarin, but they loved and needed Saad, whose power game was a notable absence the past two seasons.

There’s nothing wrong with missing Panarin. He put up impressive numbers with the Blackhawks and started his Columbus career off well with a three-assist night on Friday against the New York Islanders. But the Blackhawks kept him off the scoresheet on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Saad’s presence has been felt in two consecutive games, from his hat trick on Thursday to his two-point night (game-winning goal, assist) on Saturday. When camp opened Saad said it could take some time for he, Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik to gel. It really hasn’t. The top line, which combined for five points on Saturday, has become the top line again.

“His quickness is what’s been very noticeable: quick to pucks, quick to beating the guy to the net,” coach Joel Quenneville said of Saad. “That line was excellent again tonight. They all do a little something different but they’re all big, all can move and Saader sniffing out a loose puck right off the bat got us off to a good start.”

As Quenneville mentioned over the summer, finding line mates for Kane has rarely been a problem; no matter who Kane’s lined up with the points have usually come. There’s already been evidence of that, given Kane’s five points in two games. He’s found success with Nick Schmaltz and Ryan Hartman – and played some Artem Anisimov on Saturday after Schmaltz left with an upper-body injury. Kane talked on Saturday morning about missing Panarin but his ability to adjust to new line mates – and he did it plenty prior to the last two seasons – has made Panarin’s absence easier.

The reception Panarin got on Saturday was rousing and justifiably so. For two seasons Panarin showed the “wow” factor, as Quenneville often referred to it. Sure, it’d be great if they could both be on the same team but that pesky salary cap just won’t allow it. The Blackhawks loved Panarin. But they needed Saad.

“[Saad’s] probably added, whether it’s confidence or the ability to get his stick on pucks around the net, it seems really high-end right now. Great start for him,” Patrick Kane said. “We were saying he’s not a Man-Child anymore. He’s just a man.”