Blackhawks

Not satisfied: Richard Panik wants to improve off career season with Blackhawks

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USA TODAY

Not satisfied: Richard Panik wants to improve off career season with Blackhawks

Entering this season, Richard Panik is enjoying a security he hasn’t had much in his professional hockey career. After a few years of uncertainty, he enters this season knowing he is definitely part of an NHL roster. He’s coming off a career season and didn’t hesitate to sign the two-year deal the Blackhawks offered him in the summer.

Feeling secure of where he is? After being uncertain his first few years in the league, sure. Feeling satisfied with where he is? Oh, not at all.

“I don’t want to be satisfied with the contract and everything from last season. It’s the past,” he said following Wednesday’s practice. “Now I have other goals I want to achieve and I’m just focusing on that.”

Panik is coming off an impressive season in which he found good chemistry and production with Jonathan Toews on the top line. He’ll be starting there again this season with Toews and Brandon Saad, and the three have been feeling more comfortable as camp has progressed. As far as his individual stats, Panik’s career-high numbers in goals (22), assists (22) and points (44) are all nice and good, but that was last season. It would be easy to feel pressure with the bigger contract and bigger expectations but Panik isn’t feeling it – at least when it comes to focusing too much on numbers.

“I think that’s going to be the biggest problem, if I focus on that,” he said. “I’ll keep it simple, do what got me here and just go from there. As soon as I don’t think about points they come in a game. If I’m going to play on a good side every time on the ice, chances will get to me and hopefully something will go in. Do the small things on the ice, help teammates and go from there.”

Panik likely felt as much pressure – maybe even more – last season when he was on a one-year deal and hoping to stick around longer. It came through in his play, from the points to his drive-the-net style, of which the Blackhawks always want more.

“It works both ways, whether it’s pressure when you get the contract or pressure trying to earn one. So I think as pros, with some guys that focus is secondary. Their motivation to be as good as they can be on a daily basis is what they’re all about and that’s what gets them to our level,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Bringing a consistency with his game is probably something he seemed to be doing over the last little while and we hope he can continue on. He provides us with an element of physicality as well as skill and net presence. He does a lot of good things for us.”

Panik is in a more secure place this season but he’s not satisfied with what he’s done to this point. The Blackhawks’ top line could be a strong one again and Panik hopes to keep adding to it.

“Those last [few] years I was on the edge; I didn’t know if I’d play in the AHL or NHL. I had to make a team. Now it’s a different situation. I have a contract and I think I earned it last season,” Panik said. “Now I have to prove it this season.”

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.