Tracey Myers

Blackhawks still searching for second-line answers

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks still searching for second-line answers

Breaking news: when the Blackhawks face the Nashville Predators Saturday night it will be… Game 6 of 82 on the regular-season schedule.

No this is not an exact-some-measure-of-revenge game. That’s a silly notion that makes it sound like an early regular-season game will actually constitute some payback for the sweep the Blackhawks suffered in April. That was then. Right now, the Blackhawks are still trying to figure out the right second-line combination in the wake of Nick Schmaltz’s upper-body injury.

Schmaltz is close but he’ll be out again against the Predators. Tanner Kero, who finished Thursday’s game centering Ryan Hartman and Patrick Kane, will be there to start against Nashville. The three had a decent spark in their few minutes’ together on Thursday and look to have it right away again vs. the Predators.

“Yeah, obviously they’re both playing well, they’re off to great starts,” Kero said. “You just want to help support them, you want to be moving the puck and making sure you’re getting to those areas in front of the net and supporting them all over the ice, try to get them the puck and make plays.”

Nashville certainly was bolstered by its Stanley Cup run last season but that didn’t change the Blackhawks’ perspective of the Predators.

“We’ve always had a ton of respect for Nashville and we’ve always had hard games against them," Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said. "Tight games, close games, fun games to be involved with — obviously our playoff series wasn’t fun at all — but we feel that we know how good they are. But league-wide it was good for our game, the enthusiasm that Nashville had for its Cup run was good for their market. I think everybody thought pretty good things about Nashville to begin with but certainly that validated it.”

Be back soon? Blackhawks really missing Nick Schmaltz

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USA TODAY

Be back soon? Blackhawks really missing Nick Schmaltz

Nick Schmaltz skated around with his teammates on Thursday morning. It was an encouraging sign, given the nasty hit he took against the Columbus Blue Jackets last Saturday.

“Getting better every day,” said Schmaltz, sporting a shiner around his left eye. “Hopefully I can get in there on Saturday (vs. Nashville).”

When a player gets hurt the Blackhawks preach the same mantras as every other team: it’s an opportunity for someone else, others have to step up, insert next sports-ism here. But finding answers in Schmaltz’s absence hasn’t been as simple as plugging in another center on the second line, even someone as familiar with it as Artem Anisimov. Without Schmaltz, the line chemistry the Blackhawks hoped to have early on has diminished.

It’s a testament to the strides Schmaltz has taken, be it with his speed, playmaking or overall game, that the Blackhawks miss him this much. The second line’s dip in production is one thing but it goes beyond that. Right now the Blackhawks are a one-line team (the top line of Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik).

The Ryan Hartman, Anisimov and Patrick Kane combination had been so-so entering Thursday night, when coach Joel Quenneville wanted to give it another try vs. the Minnesota Wild – “we feel that line, there’s enough there to get it going and Kaner, you can still use him in other places with other lines and you can get something for the other team to be worried about as well,” Quenneville said on Thursday morning. But it still wasn’t yielding much. Considering Kane and Anisimov played the better part of two seasons together, it’s surprising that they haven’t connected now like they did in the past.

“It’s more like time apart. We played all training camp with different partners and we’re adjusting,” said Anisimov, who’s been the Blackhawks’ third-line center since the start of camp. “A little bit of chemistry is there but it’s not clicking like it’s supposed to be. We just need to find a way to get clicking again.”

By the third period on Thursday, however, Quenneville put Tanner Kero at second-line center with Hartman and Kane. Hartman scored his second goal of the season, with Kero and Kane assisting. It was something but again, the Blackhawks are back to making a number of line swaps to rekindle production.

“Yeah, [Schmaltz’s presence] brings a lot of balance. He’s got a lot of speed and it makes the defense second guess and have to back in a little bit, gives the wingers extra time and gives us a net drive,” Hartman said. “He’s definitely a key part to this team and our success and we’re looking forward to having him back soon.”

The Blackhawks are like any other team: if someone’s hurt, you have to find someone else to fill the void. But Schmaltz was a big part of that second line clicking and the Blackhawks are missing him a lot right now.

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 5-2 loss to Wild: Counting on goaltending too much?

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USA TODAY

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 5-2 loss to Wild: Counting on goaltending too much?

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 5-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night:
 
1. The power play is still quiet.

The Blackhawks had two opportunities on Thursday; the first was forgettable while the second generated more chances but still ended with no production. And with that, the Blackhawks’ power play is now 3-for-18 on the season. Hey, a struggling power play is a running theme with this team so this shouldn’t be a total surprise. 
 
2. Counting on goaltending too much again?

It seemed that way for the first half of this one, anyway. The Wild didn’t have many more shots than the Blackhawks but they had better scoring opportunities. Crawford was up to it for most of this one until things got interesting in the third period. 
 
3. John Hayden’s shot.

The Blackhawks fourth liner has been a physical presence since the start of training camp and he’s had a few fights. He had another melee on Thursday night, sparring with Marcus Foligno and landing a huge right to Foligno’s jaw at the end of it.
 
4. Getting a little weary?

The Wild were playing in just their third game of the season on Thursday. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, played their fifth in the last seven days. It’s still early but that’s a lot of hockey in a week.

The Blackhawks did a lot of good things over the past week but after a busy stretch, Friday’s rest day is necessary. 
 
5. The Blackhawks miss Nick Schmaltz (a lot).

This one is becoming more evident with each passing game. The second line certainly could use him; Patrick Kane hasn’t had a point, nor has he had as many opportunities, since Schmaltz suffered his upper-body injury against Columbus.

Quenneville has switched up the bottom three lines looking to spark the offense. But there’s good news on Schmaltz: skated on Thursday morning and the Blackhawks are hoping the center will return on Saturday.