Blackhawks: Vermette elevating game as stage gets bigger


Blackhawks: Vermette elevating game as stage gets bigger

TAMPA, Fla. — His teammates heard he has a reputation as a money player and Antoine Vermette has done nothing to disprove it this postseason.

The veteran center netted his third game-winner of the postseason on Saturday night and the Blackhawks pulled ahead in the Stanley Cup Final, edging the Tampa Bay Lightning, 2-1, in Game 5 at Amalie Arena. Vermette has four goals this postseason for the Blackhawks, who lead the series 3-2 and, on Monday night, could clinch their first Stanley Cup title at home since 1938.

“(Phoenix coach Dave Tippett) said in big games, he comes up big and it’s definitely what he’s been doing for us here,” defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “He’s a guy that’s great in faceoffs and extremely nice off the ice, too. He’s a great addition to the locker room.

“A lot of veteran presence.”

[MORE: Vermette powers Blackhawks to Game 5 win over Lightning]

This is exactly what the Blackhawks had in mind — well, maybe not this — when they traded defenseman Klas Dahlbeck and a 2015 first-round draft pick to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for Vermette on Feb. 28.

With the score tied at 1 in the third, Kris Versteeg broke away from the pack. His shot kicked off the skate of Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop, but Vermette was there to clean it up and put the Blackhawks ahead for good.

Vermette also had the game-winner in Game 1 over the Lightning and his overtime goal lifted the Blackhawks over the Anaheim Ducks in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals.

“It’s nice to see Vermy get those chances,” said center Jonathan Toews. “He’s scored two really big goals for us in this building and he’s been a huge part of our team and our success.”

Well, the transition hasn’t always been smooth for Vermette.

With Patrick Kane out indefinitely with a clavicle injury, the Blackhawks added the pending unrestricted free agent for depth prior to the trade deadline. But playing about five fewer minutes per game for the Blackhawks after the trade than he did for the Coyotes, Vermette struggled.

“Off the get go was very tough for me,” Vermette said.

Vermette had three assists for the Blackhawks but didn’t score a goal in 19 regular-season games. Even in the postseason, Vermette was a healthy scratch in Games 1 and 2 of the first round and Game 3 of the Western Conference Final.

But the more experience he gains with his new teammates, the more Vermette has excelled.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

Or couldn’t you tell?

“I think in the beginning he tried to understand our system,” right wing Marian Hossa said. “After some time he got the role and grew in that role unbelievably and he’s scoring huge goals for us. He’s a great centerman and he’s scoring right now big goals, so I’m feeling great for him.”

Vermette feels pretty good, too.

This is the second time he’s been to the Stanley Cup Final after he played 20 postseason games for the 2006-07 Ottawa Senators, who lost in five games to the Ducks. Vermette said he didn’t put any more pressure on himself because he was the team’s high-profile acquisition.

It just took a little time to get accustomed to his new role.

“This is a good group, obviously a special team," Vermette said. "You have to come here and try to help the team. This is a lot of fun right now, but there’s a lot of work still ahead.”

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to Blue Jackets: Looking at the bigger picture

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to Blue Jackets: Looking at the bigger picture

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Saturday night:

1. Blackhawks squander two leads.

For the 13th time in their past 16 games, the Blackhawks scored the first goal of the game. They had won their previous three instances when doing so, but couldn't seal the deal this time and fell to 5-6-2 in those 13 games.

What strung even more is that the Blackhawks held two one-goal leads and couldn't hang on to either of them. They have the seventh-worst win percentage (.571) when scoring the first goal this season with a 20-10-5 record.

2. Vinnie Hinostroza continues to produce offensively.

If you're trying to look for a rare bright spot on the Blackhawks roster this season, here's one. Hinostroza registered a secondary assist on David Kampf's goal for his fifth point in six games, and was on the ice for 16 shot attempts for and seven against during 5-on-5 play for a team-leading shot attempt differential of plus-9 (also known as Corsi).

For the season, Hinostroza has 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) in 32 games and he's doing so while averaging only 13:27 of ice time. His point-per-game average is up to 0.63, which is tied with Jonathan Toews for third on the team; only Patrick Kane (0.92) and Nick Schmaltz (0.71) are producing at a higher rate.

Hinostroza deserves more minutes, but at the same time his ability to produce on any of the four lines has allowed Joel Quenneville to put him in a bottom six role for balance.

"I like his speed," Quenneville said recently on why Hinostroza has been so effective. "I think with the puck, he's been good with it as well. More strength, on it, managing it, better decisions with it, and good plays off it. He definitely brings you energy and some speed, he can catch people with that quickness."

3. Ryan Hartman's benching.

Hartman was part of the fourth line that contributed to the Blackhawks' first goal of the game, and he was on his way to having a strong one. But that changed quickly after he took an ill-advised penalty in the first period.

Already leading 1-0, the Blackhawks had a 2-on-1 opportunity developing involving Hinostroza and David Kampf but Hartman was whistled for high-sticking at 17:06 behind the play. The Blue Jackets converted on the power play, and that was the end of Hartman's night.

He took only five shifts and finished with a season-low 4:16 of ice time, with Quenneville using it as an opportunity for a teaching moment.

4. Tomas Jurco building confidence back up.

It's been a tough season mentally for Jurco. He started the season with the AHL's Rockford IceHogs after failing to make the team out of camp, and compiled 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists) in 36 games. 

It earned him a call-up on Jan. 8, with Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman praising the way he progressed: "He looks like he's totally different, in terms of his composure and ability to make plays. That's why we brought him up here."

The problem? He was a healthy scratch for five straight games and went two weeks without seeing game action with the Blackhawks. Not exactly the best way to keep someone's confidence building. And since then, he's been fighting for a spot in the lineup.

For the last three games, Jurco has been given a shot on the second line with Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane and he cashed in for his first goal of the season tonight and first since March 27, 2017. It's also the second straight game he's recorded a point.

While he may not be worth much if the Blackhawks were to deal him ahead of Monday's deadline, perhaps a change of scenery to a team that believes in him as a fit will bring out the best of his abilities. The Blackhawks tried and it just hasn't worked out.

5. Blue line observation.

This is more of a big-picture takeaway, but the Blackhawks have gotten only 20 goals from their defensemen this season. The Blue Jackets have gotten a combined 19 from just Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Last season the Blackhawks had 30 total.

The Blackhawks just haven't gotten the offensive production needed from their back end and it's so important as it helps alleviate some of the pressure off the forwards.

I asked Quenneville about this after Friday's game and here's what he had to say: "Whether you score or not, you need the D to be part of your attack, be it off the rush, in zone. But I think the whole game, the whole league is four-man rush game, five-man attacks, coming at you, night-in, night-out, wave after wave.

"But you need to get your D involved in your support on the attack and you need them on the offensive zone off the point. You need some shooters on the back end that can get them through as well. I think offensive production from the back end in today’s game really enhances your offense and your possession game."

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Columbus Blue Jackets 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. One big reunion.

The Blackhawks will square off with the Blue Jackets for the first time since Oct. 7, which was the second game of the season. In that game, they won 5-1 led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, each of whom scored a goal and added an assist.

Of course, that was the first game since the offseason trade that sent Artemi Panarin to Columbus and Saad back to Chicago, along with Anton Forsberg. Artem Anisimov, of course, was part of the original deal that sent Saad to Columbus in 2015, so there are a lot of emotional ties between the two teams.

Forsberg didn't get a chance to face the Blue Jackets in the first meeting, but there's a chance he will this time with it being the second of a back-to-back and Jean-Francois Berube getting the start in Friday's 3-1 win over San Jose.

2. Panarin and Kane bromance.

The emotions of a difficult break-up have probably died down by now, but Panarin and Kane gave us this moment at center ice during pregame warmups in their first game against each other and it hit Chicago right in the feels:

Panarin has spent enough time apart from Kane for people to realize how big of a star he is in his own right, leading the Blue Jackets in all three scoring categories: goals (17), assists (32) and points (49).

He hasn't gone more than three games this season without recording a point, and is looking to extend his point streak to four games, which would tie a season high.

3. Struggling Blue Jackets special teams.

The Blue Jackets got off to a great start but are barely clinging onto a wild card spot going into Saturday's game, and a big reason for that slide is their lack of success on special teams. Usually one can pick up the slack for the other, but they've been brutal in both departments.

The Blue Jackets are 0-for-9 on the power play in their past five games and are ranked 31st overall, converting on only 14.1 percent of their opportunities. They also have own the 27th-ranked penalty kill with a 76.3 percent success rate.

So if there's an area the Blackhawks can exploit, it's that. But, you know, still be mindful of that Russian winger's one-timer from the faceoff circle.