Joel Quenneville

Welcome back: Return to the booth is Eddie Olczyk's 'best medicine'

Welcome back: Return to the booth is Eddie Olczyk's 'best medicine'

ST. LOUIS – Eddie Olczyk’s morning at Scottrade Center was full of hugs and handshakes, of questions and encouraging words, of smiles and even some tears.

It was a busy morning but a good one for Olczyk, who Wednesday night will do his first hockey broadcast since being diagnosed with colon cancer in August. For the first time in a while, Olczyk felt like himself.

“It feels normal. It feels comfortable,” said Olczyk, who will be alongside Doc Emrick when the Blackhawks face the St. Louis Blues. “I just feel invigorated. Seeing a lot of familiar faces, guys busting chops and a lot of well wishes.”

Olczyk went through his usual game-day routine, including quick chats with Blackhawks players following skate. On Wednesday those talks were that much more special, for both sides.

“Great to see him,” said Ryan Hartman. “When I first saw I was pretty excited to see him back. It’s definitely a presence you know when you’re watching games, that voice you heard growing up. He looks good, looks healthy. He’s in a battle but he looks really good.”

Olczyk will also be in the booth on Thursday night when the Blackhawks host the Edmonton Oilers. Past that, he’ll play it by ear. He’s talked to NBC and Blackhawks president John McDonough, who Olczyk said gave him an “open canvas” in terms of scheduling. If Olczyk feels good on Saturday and the Blackhawks play on Sunday, he’ll try to get back in the booth.

“We think about him every day and we’ve had the pleasure of having him come by a couple of times. Having him be here today for a road game is great to know,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “But he has a tough battle ahead of him and he’s doing everything he can to fight it. We support him every single day.”

Olczyk started chemotherapy treatments in September and he has his good and bad days. Those will continue for a while. So will his fight to completely beat this. But for at least the next two nights Olczyk gets to return to a normal routine, and that’s the perfect panacea for a trying time.

“I’m overwhelmed with everybody,” Olczyk said. “But this is the best medicine I’ve had in a long time.”

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.