Nick Schmaltz skated around with his teammates on Thursday morning. It was an encouraging sign, given the nasty hit he took against the Columbus Blue Jackets last Saturday.
“Getting better every day,” said Schmaltz, sporting a shiner around his left eye. “Hopefully I can get in there on Saturday (vs. Nashville).”
When a player gets hurt the Blackhawks preach the same mantras as every other team: it’s an opportunity for someone else, others have to step up, insert next sports-ism here. But finding answers in Schmaltz’s absence hasn’t been as simple as plugging in another center on the second line, even someone as familiar with it as Artem Anisimov. Without Schmaltz, the line chemistry the Blackhawks hoped to have early on has diminished.
It’s a testament to the strides Schmaltz has taken, be it with his speed, playmaking or overall game, that the Blackhawks miss him this much. The second line’s dip in production is one thing but it goes beyond that. Right now the Blackhawks are a one-line team (the top line of Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik).
The Ryan Hartman, Anisimov and Patrick Kane combination had been so-so entering Thursday night, when coach Joel Quenneville wanted to give it another try vs. the Minnesota Wild – “we feel that line, there’s enough there to get it going and Kaner, you can still use him in other places with other lines and you can get something for the other team to be worried about as well,” Quenneville said on Thursday morning. But it still wasn’t yielding much. Considering Kane and Anisimov played the better part of two seasons together, it’s surprising that they haven’t connected now like they did in the past.
“It’s more like time apart. We played all training camp with different partners and we’re adjusting,” said Anisimov, who’s been the Blackhawks’ third-line center since the start of camp. “A little bit of chemistry is there but it’s not clicking like it’s supposed to be. We just need to find a way to get clicking again.”
By the third period on Thursday, however, Quenneville put Tanner Kero at second-line center with Hartman and Kane. Hartman scored his second goal of the season, with Kero and Kane assisting. It was something but again, the Blackhawks are back to making a number of line swaps to rekindle production.
“Yeah, [Schmaltz’s presence] brings a lot of balance. He’s got a lot of speed and it makes the defense second guess and have to back in a little bit, gives the wingers extra time and gives us a net drive,” Hartman said. “He’s definitely a key part to this team and our success and we’re looking forward to having him back soon.”
The Blackhawks are like any other team: if someone’s hurt, you have to find someone else to fill the void. But Schmaltz was a big part of that second line clicking and the Blackhawks are missing him a lot right now.