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In shadow of Blackhawks sexy offense, young defensive duo lights Q's lamp

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USA TODAY

In shadow of Blackhawks sexy offense, young defensive duo lights Q's lamp

Jan Rutta was taking in every moment of his first NHL game on Thursday night, from the introductions to the Bryan Bickell ceremony to the raucous United Center crowd, which had plenty of reasons to be boisterous. That may sound like Rutta was distracted but it was actually the opposite.

“I mean, the fans are amazing and they fill us with so much energy,” Rutta said. “So it’s really good.”

For Rutta, it was the crowd. For Gustav Forsling, his partner in the Blackhawks’ season opener, it was offseason reading on mental skills. Be it Rutta’s transition from Europe to North America or Forsling’s need to improve in a sophomore season, whatever helps a young defenseman feel more comfortable you go with it. It worked for Game 1, anyway, when the duo came away with a combined outing that coach Joel Quenneville appreciated.

“Both of them were strong defensively,” Quenneville said. “They went to people quickly, I thought they had a really good gap and the involvement in our rush game and their patience with the puck on the point was great. Our defense as a group of six were really good as far as defense to offense and more involvement with our defense on the attack.”

[MORE: Showtime, baby: Blackhawks' second line was off-the-charts good in blowout win

The Blackhawks’ big question this season is defense, so nights like Thursday for Rutta and Forsling are encouraging. They’ll likely be playing again on Saturday when the Blackhawks face the Columbus Blue Jackets – why the heck would you change anything out of a 10-1 victory? For Rutta, the move across the pond has been smooth. Same goes for the transition from preseason to Game 1 of the regular season.

“I played four preseason games and those teams, they played one, two, sometimes three lines of their normal teams. Getting to know the players – not that I didn’t know them. I know them from TV – but once you’re on the ice with them, it’s a little different,” Rutta said with a laugh. “It’s good to get to know the guys you play.”

Forsling, meanwhile has to jump off the levels he set last training camp. It was an excellent start but the Blackhawks needed more from him. That goes double this season but Forsling is feeling more confident about himself and his game – again, mental skills reading this summer.

“I just trust myself. I trust my abilities and I keep working every day,” Forsling said. “I learned a lot [last season] but I wasn’t really happy. I wanted more. So I’ll try to get that out of me this season.”

Quenneville likes Forsling’s approach.

“When you have confidence as a young defenseman, you seem to have way more patience of things developing and opening up and then you have confidence going into the puck area and trying to influence it and not that hesitation in your game,” he said. “When [Forsling] plays with more poise he gets to another level. He’s had a good camp and some really good days. And definitely his partner helps and does a lot of nice things with him.”

Who knows how long the Blackhawks’ defense is going to be a work in progress. There will probably be switches – Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were together on Thursday but that likely won’t be long term. For Rutta and Forsling, getting as many opportunities as possible and utilizing whatever helps them feel better out there will help their development

Showtime, baby: Blackhawks’ second line was off-the-charts good in season-opening blowout

Showtime, baby: Blackhawks’ second line was off-the-charts good in season-opening blowout

Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane were a sizzling combination through most of Thursday night’s game. From their reads off each other to the passes to the points, the duo, which had built up great chemistry through training camp, put it to full use through two-plus periods. Throw in Ryan Hartman for more of a net-front presence and there was the potential for some points.

Make that a lot of points.

Schmaltz had two goals and an assist, Kane had a goal and three assists and Hartman had a career-high five points (goal, four assists) in the Blackhawks’ lopsided 10-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night. Playing against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, who played Wednesday night against St. Louis, the Blackhawks started strong, didn’t let up and got a little something from everyone. But the newest version of the second line stole the show.

There was a late-regulation scare when Schmaltz left the game favoring his left knee. But Quenneville said Schmaltz was fine and is expected to play on Saturday when the Blackhawks face the Columbus Blue Jackets. That concern gone, Quenneville could appreciate what that line did.

“That was amazing watching the speed, whether it’s Schmaltzy going through the middle of the ice, playmaking, patience in the offensive zone be it off the rush and in zone or cross-ice passes. They were doing it all tonight,” Quenneville said. “It was one of those nights where they were outstanding. They all complimented one another, all hit open spaces and they all hit those little holes and were extremely dangerous. It was a great start for them.”

Schmaltz and Kane worked together a lot this summer, trying to build on the chemistry they had in some games last season. While they’ve been together just about all of training camp Hartman was added to the line a few days ago – “Hartzy is one guy who gets to the net most, better than a lot of guys do,” Quenneville said. The trio didn’t get a preseason game together but that didn’t seem to matter.

“Felt great. You could probably tell we were having a good time, having fun with it,” Hartman said. “Kane made some great plays and Schmaltzy as well. Things were clicking. The whole team came out hot and ready to play. It was a good win for us.”

The night-and-day difference between Schmaltz last season to this one was evident on Thursday. The speed has increased. So has his confidence. Kane’s precision was stellar, from his spin-o-rama pass to set up Schmaltz’s first goal to his driving backhand goal early in the second period. Hartman had a steady drive to the net, his goal starting the Blackhawks’ five-goal barrage in the first period.

As first runs go, it was an impressive one for the Blackhawks. They’re feeling pretty good about their lines right now. The Hartman-Schmaltz-Kane trio didn’t have a lot of time together prior to the season opener but their timing was pinpoint on Thursday.

“It was almost like it wasn’t a real game. It was just amazing, a fun start to be a part of and I think we were just playing hockey,” Kane said. “It’s not like we were trying to run up the score. We were just playing hockey. It was fun to have that. Good start, don’t be satisfied, but you gotta be happy with the way we came out.”

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 10-1 win over Penguins in season opener

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 10-1 win over Penguins in season opener

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 10-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Thursday's season opener:

1. Brandon Saad makes it rain

How's that for a return? Saad announced to Chicago that he's back by netting a hat trick for the second time in the last couple weeks, but this one actually counted.

He scored a pair of first-period goals at even strength, then found the back of the net in the third period to cap it off thanks to a terrific pass by Jonathan Toews, the United Center crowd of 21,705 showering the ice with hats. 

"The puck was finding me tonight," said Saad, who finished with a team-high five shots on goal. "I'll take it."

2. Patrick Kane in MVP form

Who needs Artemi Panarin? Seriously though, Kane put on an absolute clinic in his season debut, tying a career high with a four-point game (one goal and three assists).

His first two assists — a no-look pass and a spin-o-rama — will be on his highlight reel, and so will his goal, where he roofed a ridiculous backhander past Matt Murray, who made a relief appearance after former Blackhawks netminder Antti Niemi allowed four goals on 13 shots in the opening period.

"It's almost like it wasn't a real game," Kane said of the 10-1 rout. "It was amazing."

3. Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz shine ... and Blackhawks dodge a bullet

Schmaltz backed up all the preseason hype that surrounded him by scoring two goals and adding an assist in the win. He backchecked hard, he led the rush and buried his scoring chances. Kane went as far to say after the game that Schmaltz's speed through the middle of the ice reminds him of Connor McDavid.

Staying on the same line, Hartman had himself a career night as well, recording five points (one goal and four assists) in the victory.

That trio of Hartman, Schmaltz and Kane was simply dynamic.

"It was amazing watching the speed, whether it was Schmaltzy going through the middle of the ice, playmaking, patience in the offensive zone, be it off the rush, cross-ice passes, they were doing it all tonight," head coach Joel Quenneville said. "One of those nights where they were outstanding. All complemented one another, all hit open spaces and they all hit those little holes and were extremely dangerous. It was a great start for them."

There was a bit of scare at the end of the third period when Schmaltz left the Blackhawks' bench favoring his leg. Quenneville said after the game that Schmaltz is fine and that he will "likely" play Saturday, along with Tanner Kero, who suffered an injury in the win.

4. Patrick Sharp gets in on the action, too

Oh yeah, it was a nice welcome home for the Sharp Shooter as well. He scored the team's fifth goal to cap off the monstrous first period, which happened to be his 600th career NHL point.

He finished the game with seven shot attempts and logged 19:34 of ice time, which led all Blackhawks forwards.

5. Artem Anisimov's success at the dot

Getting away from all the scoring and looking deeper into the box score, something that flew under the radar was Anisimov's success at the faceoff circle. That was a huge concern for him last season, when he won only 45.1 percent of his draws. 

Consistency is his biggest issue, but he won 15 of 21 faceoffs (71.5 percent) in a third-line role to open the season. Great start.