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In shadow of Blackhawks sexy offense, young defensive duo lights Q's lamp

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USA TODAY

In shadow of Blackhawks sexy offense, young defensive duo lights Q's lamp

Jan Rutta was taking in every moment of his first NHL game on Thursday night, from the introductions to the Bryan Bickell ceremony to the raucous United Center crowd, which had plenty of reasons to be boisterous. That may sound like Rutta was distracted but it was actually the opposite.

“I mean, the fans are amazing and they fill us with so much energy,” Rutta said. “So it’s really good.”

For Rutta, it was the crowd. For Gustav Forsling, his partner in the Blackhawks’ season opener, it was offseason reading on mental skills. Be it Rutta’s transition from Europe to North America or Forsling’s need to improve in a sophomore season, whatever helps a young defenseman feel more comfortable you go with it. It worked for Game 1, anyway, when the duo came away with a combined outing that coach Joel Quenneville appreciated.

“Both of them were strong defensively,” Quenneville said. “They went to people quickly, I thought they had a really good gap and the involvement in our rush game and their patience with the puck on the point was great. Our defense as a group of six were really good as far as defense to offense and more involvement with our defense on the attack.”

[MORE: Showtime, baby: Blackhawks' second line was off-the-charts good in blowout win

The Blackhawks’ big question this season is defense, so nights like Thursday for Rutta and Forsling are encouraging. They’ll likely be playing again on Saturday when the Blackhawks face the Columbus Blue Jackets – why the heck would you change anything out of a 10-1 victory? For Rutta, the move across the pond has been smooth. Same goes for the transition from preseason to Game 1 of the regular season.

“I played four preseason games and those teams, they played one, two, sometimes three lines of their normal teams. Getting to know the players – not that I didn’t know them. I know them from TV – but once you’re on the ice with them, it’s a little different,” Rutta said with a laugh. “It’s good to get to know the guys you play.”

Forsling, meanwhile has to jump off the levels he set last training camp. It was an excellent start but the Blackhawks needed more from him. That goes double this season but Forsling is feeling more confident about himself and his game – again, mental skills reading this summer.

“I just trust myself. I trust my abilities and I keep working every day,” Forsling said. “I learned a lot [last season] but I wasn’t really happy. I wanted more. So I’ll try to get that out of me this season.”

Quenneville likes Forsling’s approach.

“When you have confidence as a young defenseman, you seem to have way more patience of things developing and opening up and then you have confidence going into the puck area and trying to influence it and not that hesitation in your game,” he said. “When [Forsling] plays with more poise he gets to another level. He’s had a good camp and some really good days. And definitely his partner helps and does a lot of nice things with him.”

Who knows how long the Blackhawks’ defense is going to be a work in progress. There will probably be switches – Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were together on Thursday but that likely won’t be long term. For Rutta and Forsling, getting as many opportunities as possible and utilizing whatever helps them feel better out there will help their development

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.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit Jets in Central Division showdown

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit Jets in Central Division showdown

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Winnipeg Jets tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Corey Crawford vs. Connor Hellebuyck.

When ranking the importance of goaltenders to their respective teams, these two should be near the top of the list. And they're having Vezina Trophy-type seasons.

Crawford ranks second in the league among starters with a .933 save percentage this season and is 7-0-2 with a 2.18 goals against average and .933 save percentage in his last nine starts.

Hellebuyck on the other hand has arguably been the MVP for the Jets, compiling a 16-3-4 record with a 2.44 goals against average, .920 save percentage and a shutout in 25 appearances. Backup goaltenders Steve Mason and Eric Comrie have combined for a 2-5-1 record with a .897 save percentage in nine appearances. 

They are clearly better when Hellebuyck is in goal, and it's not close. Expect a fun showdown in net.

2. Pick your poison.

There may not be a deeper forward group in the Western Conference than the Jets. They have a dangerous four-line rotation, with the ability to score from top to bottom.

Blake Wheeler has 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in six games this month, and is among the top 10 in scoring with 38 points. Patrik Laine has scored a goal in four of his last six games, while Nikolaj Ehlers has scored in three straight.

And then we get to the bottom six.

The third line of Andrew Copp, Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev are the fifth-best trio in the entire league (minimum of 100 minutes) when it comes to possession numbers, controlling 61.38 percent of the even-strength shot attempts, while the fourth line of Mathieu Perreault, Matt Hendricks and Joel Armia is coming off a game in which they combined for five points (two goals, three assists).

This might be the biggest test yet for the Blackhawks.

3. Be ready by puck drop.

No team has scored more goals in the first period than the Jets, who have 40. The next highest team is the Toronto Maple Leafs with 37. 

But the Blackhawks aren't too shabby in the opening frame, either. They rank fifth with 32 goals, although seven of them came in the first two games of the season.

Still, there's no room for a slow start on either side. Two points are on the line for a Jets team aiming for the No. 1 seed and a Blackhawks squad trying to get back into the playoff picture.