Blackhawks

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.”

Why Ryan Hartman is betting on himself going into another contract year with Predators

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USA TODAY

Why Ryan Hartman is betting on himself going into another contract year with Predators

Ryan Hartman has been through this before. Back in December of 2012, he sustained a torn labrum in his right shoulder but played through it because the Plymouth Whalers were in the middle of a playoff run. He waited until the offseason to have it surgically repaired and was cleared for contact just in time for him to attend his first training camp with the Blackhawks in September of 2013.

This time was a little different though.

Hartman had been acquired by the Nashville Predators at the trade deadline in exchange for prospect Victor Ejdsell and a 2018 first- and fourth-round pick — a hefty price to pay — in hopes of serving as an additional spark plug for a Predators team looking to load up for a second consecutive Stanley Cup run.

So when Hartman was brushed by Nathan MacKinnon along the boards, lost his footing and fell on his left shoulder late in Game 4 of the first round against Colorado, he immediately knew something was up.

"It didn't feel great at all," said Hartman, who went straight to the dressing room and had team doctors pop it back into place. "I finished the game and was able to finish playoffs in like a modified sling, which sucked to play with, but it's playoffs. It's one of those things where there are many guys playing through injuries and I was one of them."

Hartman, who's been rehabbing and training in Chicago, received the green light to fully participate in hockey-related drills last Monday but was advised to delay his Chicago Pro Hockey League debut for one more week just to err on the side of caution. On Wednesday, he got back into a game-type setting and "felt good" after 50 minutes of action going up against former teammates Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane.

Now he can fully focus on this upcoming season and amp up his on-ice training to a level he couldn't get to while recovering from shoulder surgery with training camp a month away.

Hartman was a restricted free agent this summer and recently re-signed with the Predators on a one-year deal worth $875,000. Clearly, he's betting on himself to bounce back to his rookie year form when he scored 19 goals and cash out on a larger paycheck down the line, even though he had multiple longer-term offers from the Predators.

"Yeah we talked, [GM David Poile] wants me to be there, I want to be there, we have a good relationship," Hartman said. "Obviously, he gave up a lot of stuff to take me and sees me in the future of the team and I see myself there too. There's a lot of little things that go into negotiations — if it's money wise or length — and there was a various amount [of offers] that was thrown out on both sides. With no [arbitration] rights, the best thing for me and my team was to bet on myself, take the year and go from there next year."

With that comes the pressure of having to earn another contract for the second straight year, which is also risky considering he's coming off an injury that sidelined him all summer. But that's just the way he wants it.

"Either way I want to play my best, if I have a contract or not for long-term," Hartman said. "There is the benefit of having security with long-term deals, but you see guys, in history, that sign these deals and maybe have a year or two of, not really being complacent, but just feeling satisfied. I don't like the feeling of being satisfied. I'm not saying that's why I took that contract over another contract, but it was a good month and a half of debating one of the other three [offers]. My family and my agent, we chose this was the best for me and the team as well."

It's easy to see why the Predators are happy with this deal, too. Hartman is better suited to play in a bottom-six role on a really good team but has the ability to play in the top-six if needed. A strong season out of him and they'll be happy to reward him with a longer-term offer next summer. It also means he'd be making an impact while making less than $1 million, and every contending team needs those contributions from their depth players.

Pull up the Predators' CapFriendly page and you'll notice generous contract after generous contract for a majority of their players, particularly their core group. Look no further than Ryan Ellis, who signed an eight-year extension on Tuesday that carries a cap hit of $6.25 million. He certainly left money on the table but elected to take less to follow the lead of everyone else in Nashville because the ultimate goal is to keep the band together.

"You look at Sidney Crosby, one of the best players in the league, isn't even making close to the most money in the league and that's a reason why they've won two Cups," Hartman said. "They have space, maybe not necessarily as much as the Preds do, but Poile's good at that, he's good at stressing winning, the importance of winning, and keeping a team together. Sometimes when you go year to year losing four of five players every summer, it takes a toll having to introduce yourself to new guys all the time. Keeping the same group is really beneficial."

The Predators won't have to do much introducing next month. They're essentially rolling back the same team that arguably would've reached the Stanley Cup Final if they had gotten past the Winnipeg Jets. Hartman will be an important part of that group, only this time he'll be there from the start.

"That's what I'm really excited for," he said. "It's tough coming in [halfway through the season], it kind of feels like ... it's your first time getting called up with the new team. You're adjusting, you're trying not to make a mistake, trying to earn a spot, per se, earn the respect of your peers, so having that and going through a playoff run and a Game 7, if you go through a Game 7 with anybody, it's a bond. The stuff you fight through and you play for each other, to be able to go through a training camp and the ups and downs throughout the whole season, it's going to be exciting. I fell in love with the group for the short time I was there and I'm excited to be there at the start of training camp."

Start of the Blackhawks Dynasty, Part 4: Roster overview

Start of the Blackhawks Dynasty, Part 4: Roster overview

In a 10-part series, we look back at the 10-year anniversary of the 2008-09 season, the start of the Blackhawks dynasty.

Starting a dynasty means you have to identify a group of core players to build your team around. Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews were those guys, along with Marian Hossa, who joined that mix later on.

You also need a mixture of young talent and strong veterans to fill out the depth to become successful. That's exactly what the Blackhawks had at the beginning of their dynasty and throughout.

On the first day of NHL free agency in 2008, the Blackhawks inked All-Star defenseman Brian Campbell to an eight-year deal, which solidified Chicago as a destination players wanted to commit to long term. That same year, Kris Versteeg emerged as the Blackhawks' third Calder Trophy candidate in two years, Martin Havlat and Andrew Ladd set a career high in points with 77 and 49, respectively, while youngsters Dave Bolland, Troy Brouwer and Dustin Byfuglien began to make a name for themselves as valuable pieces to the puzzle.

"Real good group of guys," Joel Quenneville said on Oct. 18, 2008. "I can say that it's the first time I walked in the room where, wow, I was impressed."

Six of the Blackhawks' Top 10 scorers in 2008-09 were aged 23 or younger. The average age for the other four? 27. The youth movement was real and they all contributed in a big way.