Blackhawks

Why Nick Schmaltz could be Blackhawks' second-line center

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USA TODAY

Why Nick Schmaltz could be Blackhawks' second-line center

Nick Schmaltz centered Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane at Saturday’s scrimmage, scoring the team’s first goal and earning the approval of coach Joel Quenneville.

So is there a possibility Schmaltz’s shot at center comes on that second line?

“Could happen,” Quenneville said with a grin.

Whether you’re fluent in Q-speak or not, that one’s pretty clear. Schmaltz is off to a good start, has some experience under his belt at that spot from last season and may get more of a chance there now.

All of this is relative, of course. There’s a lot of time between now and October but Quenneville has liked what he’s seen with Kane and Schmaltz for two consecutive days. Schmaltz, who was also considered a left-wing option on that second line — at least before the Blackhawks traded to get Sharp back — skated with Kane some this summer.

“I think it’s just getting our timing down. We built some chemistry over the summer and I think our games match each other pretty well,” Schmaltz said. “We both like to find each other and make plays, so just getting that chemistry and that timing down, I think will lead to more success.”

Again, a concern at center with Schmaltz — actually, overall with this team past Jonathan Toews — is faceoffs. It’s something Schmaltz will continue to work on but if this combo gets any time together, Sharp could always be an option in the circle, too.

Quenneville said Schmaltz’s improved strength around the puck is noticeable, “but one of his abilities is coming up with loose pucks and getting it out there and making a neat play, which is good for us.

“Having the puck cleanly exiting our zone is a good thing. Offensively, that’s his strength and that’s where his natural ability is, but he’ll add to that part of his game, like faceoffs, and getting stronger is something that’s noticeable last year to this year,” Quenneville continued. “It seems like he’s stronger around the puck and in and around those tight areas.”

Schmaltz got his first chance at second-line center when Artem Anisimov was injured last season. Even if Anisimov starts as the third-line center, nothing is set in stone; nothing ever is with the Blackhawks lines. But Schmaltz has shown enough improvement in the offseason is building chemistry with Kane and appears to be getting the second-line opportunity first.

“Arty’s proven he can play in his own end, around the net, in the offensive zone as well. Schmaltzy has the puck a lot more which is nice as well. It’s a good situation on a need basis or on performance basis,” Quenneville said. “That’ll sort itself out.”

LEGENDARY FINISH

Denis Savard and Steve Larmer joined current Blackhawks to wrap up Saturday’s scrimmage. Players enjoyed the opportunity to skate with the team’s legends.

“Yeah it’s really special,” Vinnie Hinostroza said. “Growing up in Chicago, you know who those guys are. Growing up you hear your parents, grandparents talking about them, and the last few years I’ve gotten to know Savvy pretty well. So skating with them was really special. It was awesome to see those guys come out.”

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

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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.