When trying to find a checking line, defense comes first.
The players on that line have to be responsible, they have to win some faceoffs and if they generate some offense along the way, even better. And after tinkering with some combinations, it looks as if the Blackhawks have found their checking line.
Dennis Rasmussen, Marcus Kruger and Richard Panik seemed like a good group even from the start: some defensive responsibility for what’s usually the Blackhawks’ checking line, plus a forward who went on a scoring streak to start the season. Together a few weeks now, the Blackhawks may have finally found their third-line combination.
Rasmussen, Kruger and Panik have given the Blackhawks good defense and a few goals here and there, and have been a good part of the team’s current winning streak. For coach Joel Quenneville, the line combines the best elements, especially defensively.
“They’re responsible in ways,” he said. “You have two guys who can take faceoffs. We use them in our own end a lot. Sometimes we’ve been matching them up against top lines and so they get some assignments as well and if they can outscore that group it’s a real plus for us. But they spend some zone time, they get good cycles shifts and they’ve all been managing the puck well. It’s an area where there’s some improvement in our game. I think that line has been leading the charge as far as possession and down low in the offensive zone.”
And of course, it’s all about what you can add on the scoresheet. Rasmussen has two goals in his last five games. Panik has two in his last four, including the game-winner against the New York Islanders. Still, the two-way game is important, be it for an individual or for a line. So why has it worked so well between the three?
[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]
“I think [we’re] just trying to make simple plays. We kind of find a chemistry and I think that’s good,” Panik said. “We have big bodies, so we’re using the corners and kind of trying to manage the puck in the [offensive] zone.”
Kruger said, “I think we try to do a little bit of everything and be responsible in our own end. Both of those guys [Panik and Rasmussen] are big guys who can hold onto the puck and play down low, too. That’s probably the best way to defend, playing in their own end. we’ve been getting some offense, too, which is nice.”
Rasmussen, especially, was frustrated at missing on chances he’s had recently. He’s feeling a lot better about his overall game now that he’s added some offense.
“If you score goals then you know you did something good out there. That’s kind of helps with the confidence and everything like that,” Rasmussen said. “Of course, it means a lot.”
Then there’s the communication.
“All of us think the game similar. Rasmussen and me and Panik really try to talk in between shifts, what we can do better, stuff like that,” Kruger said. “If they’re doing something we can adjust to, we try to talk about that. We’ve just been playing with some patience and trying to play the right way.”
Will the three remain together these last few games of December? The Blackhawks could be down a forward or two heading into Friday night – Marian Hossa and Artem Anisimov are both dealing with upper-body injuries. Even if Quenneville splits them to help the injury situation, he can return to a pretty reliable checking-line trio in the future.