Blackhawks

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.”

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit Niklas Hjalmarsson, Coyotes

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit Niklas Hjalmarsson, Coyotes

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Arizona Coyotes Saturday night on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Niklas Hjalmarsson's new home.

Brace yourselves, Chicago. It's going to be a weird site seeing Hjalmarsson in a different sweater other than the Blackhawks, where he spent his first 10 NHL seasons and won three Stanley Cups.

Now he serves as an alternate captain and blue-line anchor for the Coyotes, who are the only team still seeking its first win of the season. You know they'll be hungry to snap that skid, especially when there's extra motivation for a player on their team facing a bunch of old friends.

2. Connor Murphy returns to Arizona, too.

The man Hjalmarsson was traded for will also be returning to a place he called home for four years. Murphy's role with the Coyotes increased every year before he was dealt to the Blackhawks as part of a shake-up for both teams, so you know he's going to play with something to prove.

Murphy is a physical defenseman, and has laid several notable big hits this season. His former teammates surely know it, and may want to keep their heads up.

3. Patrick Kane 2.0?

Ever since he was drafted with the No. 7 overall pick in 2016, Clayton Keller has drawn comparisons to Kane. They're both undersized, offensive playmakers, possess supreme stick-handling abilities and are American-born players.

Keller got a brief taste of NHL action last year, but he's secured a full-time spot with the Coyotes this season and has been arguably their best player so far.

The 19-year-old forward paces all rookies with five goals and ranks second with seven points, and leads the Coyotes in both categories. Expect to see his name as a finalist for the Calder Trophy for the league's top rookie at the end of the season.

Anton Forsberg is giving the Blackhawks exactly what they need

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USA TODAY

Anton Forsberg is giving the Blackhawks exactly what they need

Anton Forsberg had just finished an extended morning skate Wednesday morning in St. Louis. The backup goaltender had played in one regular-season game for the Blackhawks to that point, so getting in extra work to stay sharp was helpful.

“I try to keep my focus in practice and work extra every day, get a few extra shots in practice with the extra guys who are out there, work with Jimmy and try to keep my game shape,” Forsberg said, referring to Blackhawks goaltending coach Jimmy Waite.

Whatever Forsberg’s working on in practice and skates seems to be working, because in two games with the Blackhawks he’s looked sharp. Forsberg probably deserved a victory on Thursday night when he stopped 40 shots in the Blackhawks’ 2-1 overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers. It’s the backup life to wait and see when that next start will come, but Forsberg has been ready.

“For sure I felt more comfortable today, more used to the speed,” he said following Thursday’s game. “I felt I read the game better, felt I had more time moving around. It’s tough, again, to lose in overtime. Obviously I wanted to win and it’s frustrating.”

Frustrating for sure, but Forsberg is giving the Blackhawks exactly what they want and need: a dependable backup that gives them a chance to win. The two goals Forsberg gave up on Thursday weren’t softies, either — Patrick Maroon’s goal off a ridiculous Connor McDavid pass and Mark Letestu’s over game-winner that deflected off Brent Seabrook’s stick.

“He kept us in a tight game like he did in Toronto, got us to overtime. I kind of feel bad we didn’t get him a win in either of those,” Ryan Hartman said. “He played well both of those games. It’s nice to have a guy on the back end like that.”

Forsberg has blended in well with the Blackhawks. It helps that he already knew two of them, Brandon Saad and Artem Anisimov, his former teammates in Columbus. He and Corey Crawford already have a good rapport. Same goes for he and Waite, and Forsberg has soaked up any information they’ve given him.

“I feel like both him and Corey teach me a lot. We talk about different situations, especially all the reads,” Forsberg said. “I get to know how (Crawford) thinks the game. He’s been around a long time and has been doing well, so it’s interesting every day to hear what he has to say. Even Jimmy’s been around same thing there, discussing my game, what we want to improve, what we want to do different, what to keep the same and go from there.”

The extra work in practices and skates appears to be working as Forsberg has done a lot right in just his first two games, which were 10 days apart. The Blackhawks have had a good run of backup goaltenders; two games is a small sample size but Forsberg could be the latest reliable backup.