Don't expect first-game jitters from Blackhawks rookie Alex DeBrincat

Don't expect first-game jitters from Blackhawks rookie Alex DeBrincat

That first NHL game. Some players get just a few minutes’ worth of ice time in it. Some score their first goal. But no matter how that first game goes, all players seemed to have the same feeling entering it: nervousness.

“It didn’t kick in until going out there for warmups. Skating around and that 15-20 minutes between warmups, that was pretty nerve-wracking,” said Ryan Hartman, who made his debut against the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 13, 2014. “It’s just really wanting to get out there and get the nerves out was my focus. Just go out there and do something to try and make it seem like it’s hockey again.”

So will that be the same for Alex DeBrincat, one of two Blackhawks (along with defenseman Jan Rutta) who will make his NHL debut tonight? Maybe. But at least two members of the Blackhawks think the 19-year-old will handle his first NHL game as effortlessly as he handled everything this preseason.

Many eyes will be on DeBrincat when he and the Blackhawks face the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight. After starting camp with Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane, DeBrincat is expected to start at third-line right wing (with Artem Anisimov and Patrick Sharp) tonight. Sharp, who made his NHL debut with the Philadelphia Flyers at age 20, doesn’t see DeBrincat suffering from nerves too much.

“It looks like he’s playing junior hockey out there, and that’s a compliment,” Sharp said. “He’s confident with the puck, not deferring to any of his teammates or line mates just because they’re older or more experienced. He’s making the right plays. We saw it all through camp. There’s a bit of a jump, it’s Game 1, but I don’t anticipate any problems with Alex.”

Be it rookies or young players, a few current/former Blackhawks have gotten caught up in deferring to veteran line mates. Teuvo Teravainen showed hesitation when first aligned with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa two seasons ago. Hartman admitted it took him a few games to stop automatically doing the same thing. So far DeBrincat hasn’t shown much of that hesitation.

“Watching him the preseason games he looks pretty comfortable out there. He wants the puck and does a lot of good things when he gets it,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “It’s a great beginning for him and our organization. We’re looking forward to seeing how he handles it and we’re thinking he’ll be fine.”

If there are any nerves, players who have been there, done that before had advice.

“Just go out there and do something to try and make it seem like it’s hockey again. Just make plays,” Hartman said. “I know from experience, being a young guy, being your first time playing, you’re just trying not to make mistakes, trying not to mess up plays and trying to be responsible. But sometimes that hinders your skill level and some of the aspects of your game. Just go out there and play to your strengths and take it like it’s another hockey game.”

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks look to extend winning streak against Wild


Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks look to extend winning streak against Wild

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Minnesota Wild tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Foot on gas.

The Blackhawks have won four straight and are looking to make it five in a row against a Wild team that's fighting to stay in the playoff picture also.

The Wild are already without Devan Dubnyk, who's considered week to week with a lower-body injury, and they rank dead last in shots per game (28.5). That's not a favorable combo right now, because the Blackhawks rank sixth with 34.5 shots per game.

Joel Quenneville always preaches playing with pace and with the puck, and there shouldn't be a reason the Blackhawks don't continue that tonight with the Wild coming off a back-to-back.

2. Can the second line stay hot?

In the last three games, the trio of Nick Schmaltz, Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane has combined for 10 points (five goals, five assists), and they've teamed up to score the game winner in two of the last three. 

Kane himself has a three-game point streak after going pointless in his previous four, which was the longest drought since 2009. That line has been clicking, and it's important for it to stay that way as the Blackhawks look to evolve into a strong four-line team.

3. How will the blue line stack up?

The Blackhawks were hopeful that Cody Franson (lower body) and Jan Rutta (upper body) would skate at practice on Saturday, but neither of them did. So unless something drastic changes overnight, it appears the Blackhawks will roll out the same six defensemen with Ville Pokka being the lone healthy scratch.

Jordan Oesterle has played so well since returning to the lineup that Quenneville put him on the second power-play unit during Saturday's practice, and Michal Kempny made an impact in his first game since Nov. 12 when he scored a goal in Thursday's 5-1 win against the Winnipeg Jets.

If both of them play turn in another solid performance, it will be interesting to see how Quenneville plays his cards once one or both of either Franson or Rutta are ready to return soon.

Five takeaways from Blackhawks 5-1 win over Jets: Offensive contributions everywhere

Five takeaways from Blackhawks 5-1 win over Jets: Offensive contributions everywhere

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 5-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night:

1. A perfect start.

Against a high-powered Jets offense that leads the league in first-period goals (40) and ranked fourth in goals per game (3.41) entering Thursday, the Blackhawks made sure to throw the kitchen sink at Winnipeg in the opening frame.

The Blackhawks scored two goals on their first two shots thanks to Vinnie Hinostroza netting his first of the season and Tommy Wingels scoring his third in four games, and Nick Schmaltz later made it three goals on five shots when he redirected Duncan Keith's shot from the point.

The Blackhawks as a team recorded 24 shot attempts (12 on goal) and generated nine 5-on-5 scoring chances compared to 12 attempts (six on goal) and two scoring chances for the Jets. 

2. Bottom six delivers.

Not only did the Blackhawks score five goals, but they got contributions from all over the lineup, particularly the bottom six yet again. Hinostroza and Wingels set the tone early, and their offense trickled down to the top six. 

On the first goal, Patrick Sharp made a nice play to keep the puck in the offensize zone, capitalizing on a Tyler Myers turnover and sliding a perfect pass to Hinostroza for the one-timer. 

On the second, Lance Bouma's first pass attempt to Wingels from behind the net was blocked by a Jets forward but his second one got through and Wingels made no mistake in snapping it past Connor Hellebuyck.

It's the fourth time in the last five games the Blackhawks have gotten a goal from their fourth line, and the first goal from the third line since Alex DeBrincat was moved up to the first with Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad.

3. That pass by Schmaltz...

Already on the scoresheet with a goal in the first period, Schmaltz decided to add to his highlight reel in the way he knows how to do it best.

A little past the midway mark of the second period, Schmaltz jumped on a rebound and fired an unbelievable no-look pass right on Kane's tape, who buried home his second goal in as many games to give the Blackhawks a 4-0 lead.

Kane's reaction said it all:

4. Corey Crawford stays sharp.

In their biggest test to date, the Blackhawks needed their netminder to be on his A-game and he was, not surprisingly, up to the task.

With a 27-save performance, Crawford improved to 8-0-2 in his last 10 starts and hasn't lost a regulation game since Nov. 12 against New Jersey. He's allowed two goals or fewer in each of his last four games, and has a .952 save percentage over that span. He also has given up just one goal or fewer in 10 of 24 starts this season.

Crawford's overall save percentage jumped to .934, moving him into a tie with Andrei Vasilevskiy for the league lead among starters.

5. Blackhawks blue liners making things difficult for Joel Quenneville.

When Cody Franson went down with a lower-body injury, it was Jordan Oesterle who got the call to slide into the top pairing with Duncan Keith and he hasn't missed a beat despite being a healthy scratch in 11 straight.

With Jan Rutta (upper body) out, Michal Kempny got back in the lineup for the first time in 14 games and he made sure to make his presence felt.

He logged 16:30 of ice time, registered five shot attempts (three on goal), a blocked shot and scored the Blackhawks' fifth goal of the game with an absolute missile of a slap shot from the left circle that whizzed above Hellebuyck's right shoulder.

It was an important goal, too, because the Jets had just cut the lead to 4-1 and were making a strong push towards the early stages of the third period.

It's a great problem to have when you have eight capable defensemen, but it calls for some difficult decisions when Franson and Rutta get healthy. Oesterle has done nothing to warrant being removed from the lineup, and neither did Kempny in this one.