Joel Quenneville

No one is more excited for Nick Schmaltz to return than Patrick Kane

No one is more excited for Nick Schmaltz to return than Patrick Kane

The Blackhawks' lines rolled out on Monday morning, with Nick Schmaltz taking his normal spot at second-line center. After missing the last five-plus games this is as positive a sign as the Blackhawks have had that Schmaltz is close to returning.

There will be a few people happy about that, including Patrick Kane.

“With us, we were playing together for about a month there, so you really get used to playing with certain guys and certain line mates,” Kane said. “While he was gone I wasn't very good, so it'll be nice to have him back.”

Let’s just take a quick look at the numbers: In the brief time Kane and Schmaltz played together in the regular season (season opener and the first few minutes vs. Columbus), Kane had two goals and four assists. In the four-plus games since Schmaltz’s injury, Kane has two assists.

Yes, Kane and Schmaltz together worked pretty well. Sure, it’s a small sample size in terms of regular-season games, but they’ve been working together since late summer. Even when they didn’t score they were a threat to do so. The Blackhawks became a one-line team in his absence, so his return should bring balance again.

“One game sampling, and then the whole training camp, obviously he really got us excited with his speed, his presence off the rush, play recognition and his, I guess, synergy with Kaner seemed to be the one thing that was outstanding in the one game. Really noticed [that] right off the bat,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “[Ryan Hartman] did a good job on that line, as well, so you got a little bit of everybody doing a little bit of different things. But his speed is the one thing that you really notice with the last couple of days returning to practice.”

Reuniting with Artem Anisimov didn’t work. Tanner Kero centering that line was fine. Schmaltz and Kane clicked well before the regular season even began and with Schmaltz regaining his health, Kane should regain his production.

“Like I said, you get so used to playing with someone for a month, I don't think that's a knock on anyone else or any of our other center men. Even in those four games I wasn't very good either,” Kane said. “With that being said, he just brings the speed up the middle. And I think the biggest thing with that (is) that a defenseman has to make a decision. If he wants to drop back, he's going to take him away and I get some more time and space. If he wants to come at me, then I can make that play to the middle and maybe have an odd-man rush. That's his biggest asset obviously.”

Lean on Me: Blackhawks' goalies providing necessary support

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AP

Lean on Me: Blackhawks' goalies providing necessary support

For Corey Crawford, it’s all working pretty well right now. Good anticipation? Check. Lack of rebounds? Check. That glove, which used to draw so much criticism? It’s looking alright, too.

“He’s gotten off to a great start for us,” coach Joel Quenneville said following the Blackhawks’ 2-1 overtime victory over the Nashville Predators on Saturday. “Can’t say enough good things about him.”

While the Blackhawks reconfigure lines to relocate early production and swap right-handed defensemen in and out of the lineup, there has been one constant: their goaltending, particularly Crawford, has been (as Quenneville likes to say) reliable and dependable.

After a barrage of goals in their first two games the Blackhawks have leaned on their goaltenders more in the past four contests. Good thing that Crawford and Anton Forsberg have been up to it. Since he’s started all but one game thus far, let’s look specifically at Crawford: through Sunday afternoon he was tied for first in the NHL in victories (four, with several other goaltenders) and led the league in save percentage (.960) and goals-against average (1.39).

“I feel pretty good. I’m reading the play well, I think,” Crawford said on Saturday night. “Not too many second opportunities, either. If they are, they’re more to the side and I’m just seeing it well and not being overly aggressive. I’m waiting for the chance to be aggressive.”

Crawford has been sharp and busy. Through his five starts Crawford has faced 174 shots (34.8 per game). Only three other NHL goaltenders have faced more (Mike Smith has seen 211 shots through six games, Jake Allen 180 through five and Andrei Vasilevskiy 179 through five). On Saturday Crawford credited the Blackhawks’ defense for the Predators taking more shots from the outside. Sure, but opponents have had their share of odd-man rushes, breakaways and scrums in front of the net.

“I like him around the net,” Quenneville said. “He’s cutting off plays that they’re trying to make that could generate even more chances. His anticipation in that area has been outstanding, he’s been moving the puck well, he’s square and it seems like he’s very involved. A lot of good things have happened in a couple of games but Crow’s been rock solid.”

The Blackhawks are trying to find the right lines in Nick Schmaltz’s absence. They’re doing the eight-defensemen juggling act and trying to work everyone into the lineup. They’re once again struggling on the power play. When other parts of your game are a work in progress you need a constant. So far, the Blackhawks’ goaltending has provided that. 

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.”