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.”

Alex DeBrincat records third career hat trick, but Blackhawks lose to Blues in overtime

Alex DeBrincat records third career hat trick, but Blackhawks lose to Blues in overtime

For Alex DeBrincat, it was probably nice to hear Chelsea Dagger again.

But how about three times?

The 20-year-old rookie snapped out of a 13-game scoring drought in a big way on Sunday night, recording his third hat trick of the season. DeBrincat did all he could to help give the Blackhawks two points, but they only came away with one in a 5-4 overtime loss to the St. Louis Blues.

DeBrincat is now the first rookie in franchise history with three hat tricks in the same season, passing Steve Larmer. His last two hat tricks came against the Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 27, 2017 and Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 25.

"It's pretty cool," DeBrincat said of his third hat trick, "but I wouldn't be able to do that without the guys we have in this locker room and the linemates I've had. Most credit to them."

Entering Sunday, his last goal was on Feb. 17 against the Washington Capitals.

"Obviously it's frustrating when you go through a slump that like that but what I've learned is to stay positive and there's other things you can help your team win with," DeBrincat said. "Just kind of focus on those things."

He netted goals No. 23, 24 and 25 on the season, tying Patrick Kane for the team lead. He is also tied for second among goals scored by a rookie this season.

DeBrincat opened the scoring with nice wrist shot on the power play to give the Blackhawks a 1-0 lead midway through the first. With less than a minute to go in the period, he tapped one home in front of the net to make it 2-0.

In the third period with the game tied at 3-3, DeBrincat put his team in front 4-3 with 3:13 left in regulation. 

“We were talking about [DeBrincat] today, it had been a while since he had scored," coach Joel Quenneville said. "But whether he scores or not, he does a lot of good things in the game, and he’s very aware of his positioning, and doing the right things, finding pucks, getting in shooting lanes, or denying passing lanes. So he’s effective in a lot of ways, but nice to see him score a nice power-play goal today.”

But Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo even things up again after a shot from the point found its way past J-F Berube with 1:22 left. Patrik Berglund would net the game-winner in overtime to hand the Blackhawks a loss.

"I feel like we’ve played well and we just came up a little bit short," DeBrincat said. "I feel like that’s been the theme of this whole season.”

The pros and cons of reuniting Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on Blackhawks top line


The pros and cons of reuniting Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on Blackhawks top line

Jonathan Toews' offense usually comes in spurts. We're seeing it again right now.

But it's no coincidence his numbers have spiked since Patrick Kane joined him on the top line.

After recording another two points in Saturday's 5-3 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, the Blackhawks captain has 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in his past eight games; he had 11 points in his previous 23 games total.

Toews also reached the 20-goal mark for the 11th straight season, joining Kane and Alex Ovechkin as the only three active players to accomplish that feat to open their NHL careers.

Kane has seen his offensive production pick up, too. He has 16 points (four goals, 12 assists) in his past 13 games after going five straight without one, which was his longest point drought of the season.

When the two of them are on the ice together at even strength, they control 57.9 percent of the shot attempts. It hasn't quite translated on the scoresheet (14 goals for and 17 goals against) maybe the way it should, but they are certainly spending far more time in the offensive zone than the defensive end and are generating a high volume of shots.

So yes, reuniting the dynamic duo has worked stats-wise.

But it comes at a cost:

— Vinnie Hinostroza and Nick Schmaltz haven't scored in six straight contests.

— Alex DeBrincat's season-long goal drought is up to 13 games.

— Artem Anisimov's last even-strength goal came nine games ago.

When you put Kane and Toews together, you risk losing some balance across the lineup and that's why Joel Quenneville has always been reluctant to go to that nuclear option. He prefers when opposing teams are forced to play 'Pick Your Poison.'

Ideally, you'd like to spread out the scoring, but one thing is for certain: The Blackhawks are better when Kane and Toews are each producing offensively, whether they're apart or together. 

When the wins start to dry up though — and they have — that's normally when it's time to try something different.

Perhaps more importantly, the last thing you want are those scoring droughts mentioned above to stretch even further and get inside the younger skaters' heads, then carrying it with them into the offseason.