Tommy Wingels

Fourth line adding a little of everything, including goals, for Blackhawks

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USA TODAY

Fourth line adding a little of everything, including goals, for Blackhawks

They know their role, what they have to do every time they’re on the ice. Fourth liners are out there to bring energy, to bring a physical presence, the sandpaper, the grit, all those familiar terms.

As for what fourth liners want to do? Well with that, they’re like every other hockey player.

“You know, we all play this game for one reason and that’s to score goals,” Tommy Wingels said recently. “Whether you’re a five-goal scorer or a 50-goal scorer, you go out there wanting to score a goal every shift. that being said, are we going to do that? No. But we’re certainly going to try every shift.”

For Wingels, Lance Bouma and John Hayden, who have comprised the Blackhawks’ fourth line for most of this season, the trying has yielded some good results lately. All three have scored in recent games; Wingels and Bouma provided the goals in the Blackhawks’ 3-2 loss to Nashville on Tuesday night, with Wingels nearly tying the game late.

When the Blackhawks were experimenting with different line combinations during their scoring drought, the fourth line remained intact. That’s mainly because those three serve a certain purpose but it’s also because it’s been consistent. Bouma, in and out of the Calgary Flames’ lineup the last two seasons due to injury or lack of production, has found a steady role here. Wingels was expected to play mainly wing but has found his niche at center. Hayden brings skill and the physical element, mixing it up a few times this season.

It didn’t take long for the three to mesh and get familiar with each other’s tendencies.

“We played with each other for most of the year so we know where everyone’s going to be on the ice. And it’s a good combination,” Bouma said. “We have a good mixture on the line. We’re all gritty guys, we all want the puck and are hungry on it. If we continue to play like that we’ll have some success.”

The fourth liners know their role: bring the energy, the grit, the physical presence, all of that. But goal scoring is never frowned upon, and those three have brought that, too.

“It’s a lot of different things we try to do. We try to be physical, we try to draw penalties, we try to bring momentum in our favor, we try to play well defensively,” Wingels said. “It’s just doing anything we can to help this team win.”

Five takeaways from Blackhawks 4-1 win over Panthers: Much-needed offensive breakout for Jonathan Toews

Five takeaways from Blackhawks 4-1 win over Panthers: Much-needed offensive breakout for Jonathan Toews

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks’ 4-1 win over the Florida Panthers on Saturday night:
 
1. Another strong start.

The Blackhawks had arguably their best first period since Opening Night on Wednesday in Tampa Bay when they scored a pair of goals and killed off three penalties, but they topped that against the Panthers.

The Blackhawks registered 30 shot attempts (21 on goal), allowed only nine attempts (seven on goal) and led in the even-strength scoring chances department 13-4. White jerseys were flying everywhere.

John Hayden and Brandon Saad both buried their scoring chances at the doorstep, and helped the Blackhawks take a 2-0 lead into the second period.

Chicago now has 24 first-period goals this season, which ranks fourth in the league.

2. Saad-Toews-Panik line dominates.

Of the 30 shot attempts the Blackhawks compiled in the first period, the top line of Saad, Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik combined for more than half of them. In fact, the trio was on the ice for 19 shot attempts for and zero against in their first six shifts, all of which were at even strength.

Saad had seven of the team's 21 shots on goal in the period, which alone matched his season-high going into the matchup. The last Blackhawks player to record seven shots on goal in a period was Dustin Byfuglien on Feb. 6, 2008 against Edmonton.

Saad was rewarded with a goal, just his second in his last 16 games, when he slammed home a Toews pass. Saad also had an assist and finished with eight shots on goal.

3. Kaner's feeling it.

Look out, folks. Here comes the 2016 Hart Trophy winner.

Patrick Kane has four goals in his last five games, including three in his last two, after going seven straight games without one. With seemingly no room, Kane found a hole top shelf snapped a shot past Roberto Luongo's left shoulder to put the Blackhawks in front 3-1 less than six minutes after the Panthers had cut their lead in half 1:06 into the second period.

It really helped squash any type of momentum for the Panthers, who outshot the Blackhawks 19-10 in the middle frame.

Kane also extended his point streak to six games, where he has four assists to go along with his four goals over that span.

4. So is The Captain?

Both of the Blackhawks' top weapons are starting to heat up. One of them already has.

Toews got off to a hot start when he had six points (three goals, three assists) in his first six games, but slowed down after he accumulated only seven points (two goals, five assists) in his next 16.

Well, that changed Saturday when he tallied a goal and two assists for his first three-point outing of the season. His goal was fluky, but one that certainly took terrific hand-eye coordination.

Hey, you take them any way you can get them, especially during a drought. The Blackhawks improved to 4-1-1 when their captain scores a goal this season.

If he gets going offensively on a consistent basis, the rest of the lineup will too because it simply takes pressure off the other three lines. Toews sets the tone.

5. Fourth line stays reliable.

If there's one line that's been consistent throughout the majority of the season, it's the Blackhawks' fourth consisting of Lance Bouma, Tommy Wingels and Hayden. 

The trio turned in another solid effort, combining for eight shot attempts (seven on goal), three hits and also teamed up to score the game's first goal (Hayden, assisted by Bouma and Wingels), as mentioned above.

Bouma had another point, and increased in his point total to eight (one goal, seven assists) in seven career games against the Panthers.

It's got to be encouraging for Joel Quenneville that he can rely on his fourth line to play third-line minutes, and in any role, while he continues to tinker and figure out his top nine in an effort to get more consistency across the board. Although he hasn't gone to the blender much lately, which is a great sign because it means the Blackhawks are piling up wins.

With all the talk about the Blackhawks' struggling power play, penalty kill is back to being team's friend

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USA TODAY

With all the talk about the Blackhawks' struggling power play, penalty kill is back to being team's friend

There are certain parts of the Blackhawks’ game that rarely change. Yes, that includes that much-maligned power play; it’s usually not so good. Their penalty kill is usually on the opposite side of that spectrum: reliable, strong and stingy.

Last year, however…

“That beginning was atrocious,” coach Joel Quenneville said.

Yeah, it was bad. More like horrific (we’ll show the numbers soon enough). And with some of the losses the Blackhawks took this offseason, one figured it would be rough again this season. Instead, it’s back to its efficient self.

The Blackhawks’ penalty kill has rebounded this early season, allowing nine goals on 59 attempts and sitting sixth overall in the NHL (84.7 percent) through the first 15 games. It’s a bit surprising considering the Blackhawks no longer have PK stalwarts such as Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marcus Kruger and Marian Hossa. So why was it able to find success again this fall?

“Well I can’t tell you all of our secrets,” said Tommy Wingels, who’s been part of the Blackhawks’ PK this season. “I think a summer off and giving the team and a unit a chance to reset is important. I think Ulfie’s [assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson] come in here and brought some new ideas. First and foremost, goaltending has done a good job. No matter if you’re the best or worst penalty kill, your goalie has to be your best player, and so far we’ve been fortunate to have that.”

Crawford’s work has been touted all season and rightfully so – he earned the NHL’s first star of the week on Monday. He was fine last year, too. But that didn’t stop the PK from floundering. Through the same 15-game sample to start last season the Blackhawks’ kill allowed 16 goals on 48 opportunities (66.7 percent). And we’re being kind looking at 15 games. If you just look at their first 10 games last year, they allowed 15 power-play goals on 36 opportunities (58.3 percent). Hence, the “atrocious” description.

So back to this season. The personnel changed but so has the approach. The Blackhawks are back to being more aggressive on the kill, and it’s worked.

“We play different this year. More pressure and we play a little different in lots of areas,” Artem Anisimov said. “[Pressure] the entire time, up ice, neutral zone and especially when they get in our zone. If we see the puck bobble we go with pressure. It’s hard for an opposing team. We just try to pressure and clear the puck and put them in a breakout position.”

The Blackhawks have had their well-documented concerns this early season. Their penalty kill was atrocious last season. This year, it’s back to normal.

“We’ve been good about keeping shifts short. When you have the opportunity to clear a puck or block a shot, those little things our PK has to do, we’ve been doing,” Wingels said. “It’s hard enough to kill penalties in this league, and when you give teams second or third opportunities by not clearing the puck, that usually ends up in our net and I think we’ve done an incredible job thus far of getting those pucks down. So far, so good.”