Blackhawks’ third line chipping in with defense, goals

Blackhawks’ third line chipping in with defense, goals

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.

The Cat is out of the bag as Alex DeBrincat hits century mark in games

The Cat is out of the bag as Alex DeBrincat hits century mark in games

Before the 2016 draft, the question marks surrounding Alex DeBrincat never had much to do with skill or production. Instead, it was his size.

When the Blackhawks selected him 39th overall, The Cat was let out of the bag.

After a 127-point season with Erie (OHL) in 2016-17, followed by an impressive 2017 preseason, DeBrincat earned a roster spot earlier than many expected.

The Cat starred in his rookie campaign, leading a struggling Blackhawks squad with 28 goals and maybe even more impressively, remaining healthy enough to play in all 82 games. He finished third among all rookies in goals and also third among players drafted in his class, behind only Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine, the top two selections in the 2016 draft.

With DeBrincat reaching the 100-game milestone in his NHL career Monday against the Hurricanes, his production through the century mark stacks up well with some of the best players in recent Blackhawks history.

Through their first 100 NHL games ... 

— Patrick Kane: 31 goals, 65 assists, 96 points
— Artemi Panarin: 37 goals, 58 assists, 95 points
— Jeremy Roenick: 35 goals, 50 assists, 85 points
— Jonathan Toews: 33 goals, 50 assists, 83 points
— Eddie Olczyk: 30 goals, 48 assists, 78 points
— Alex DeBrincat (99 games): 36 goals, 31 assists, 67 points
— Eric Daze: 37 goals, 26 assists, 63 points

Start with the faces of the franchise and two of the most highly touted rookies the Blackhawks have seen: Kane and Toews.

Toews posted 24 goals and 30 assists in an injury-shortened, 64-game rookie season. The Captain got off to a slower start in his sophomore campaign, notching nine goals in his next 36 games, taking his total to 83 points in his first 100 games.

Like DeBrincat, Kane played in all 82 games during his rookie campaign. He hit the ground running in 2007 and never looked back, tallying 72 points. In his first 18 contests the following season, Kane added 10 goals and 14 assists, combining for a total of 31 goals, 65 assists and 96 points in his first 100 NHL contests. Not surprisingly, he is at the top of the list.

How about Panarin? The Bread Man was already 24 in his rookie campaign with the Blackhawks in 2016 and found instant chemistry playing opposite Kane. Panarin potted 30 goals in 80 games that year, adding 47 assists. His 77 points in his rookie season were the most of anyone on the list. In the next 20 games in his second season, Panarin added seven goals and 11 assists, good for 95 points in 100 games, just a point shy of Kane’s total.

Going even further back, Roenick and Olczyk also had great production in their first 100 games.

Roenick broke in as a 19-year-old in 1988 but didn’t get to his 100th game until his third season in the NHL. In total, Roenick posted 35 goals and 50 assists in his first 100 games.

Meanwhile, Olczyk was an 18-year-old rookie in 1984 with the Blackhawks. In his first 70 games, Olczyk scored 20 goals added 30 helpers in 70 games. Over his next 30 games, he added 10 goals and 18 assist, combining for 78 points in his first 100 contests.

While the next comparison could not be more different than DeBrincat, the production might be most equivalent through 100 games.

Eric Daze checked in at 6-foot-6 and 235 pounds — nearly a foot taller and 70 pounds heavier than DeBrincat. Much like DeBrincat, he was an elite goal scorer in his rookie season, netting 30 goals, but lacked in the assists department with just 23. Through his first 100 games, Daze tallied 37 goals and 26 assists - good for 63 points.

As it stands, DeBrincat has 36 goals and 31 assists in his first 99 career games. He sits behind only Matthews, Laine, Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk and Arizona’s Clayton Keller in total points from those drafted in 2016. Not bad for a guy passed on 38 times by 25 different teams.

While his first 100 games might not mean much toward his next 100, DeBrincat has proven his ability as a goal-scorer and sets the standard for the next wave of core players. And with Kane and Toews approaching the wrong side of age 30, it couldn’t come at a better time for the Blackhawks.

Why Jeremy Colliton plans on keeping close tabs on Rockford

Rockford IceHogs

Why Jeremy Colliton plans on keeping close tabs on Rockford

Even though Jeremy Colliton is now the head coach of the Blackhawks, that doesn't mean he won't be keeping close tabs on how his former players are doing in Rockford. In fact, it's crucial that he does.

The Blackhawks are entering a new era where they're relying more and more on their younger players to help carry the load with the core veterans reaching the back nine of their NHL careers.

With a replenished pipeline, the Blackhawks could start to see some of them on the big club once Colliton figures out what he has in Chicago and which IceHogs could provide a spark at some point.

"Absolutely," Colliton said when asked if it's important to keep up with the IceHogs. "First of all, I care about the team, I care about the players, I care about the people who are down there. So it's only natural for me to keep my fingers on the pulse. But we want to build as much depth as we can within this group and that includes the guys in Rockford. Because there are going to be injuries, and we want competition, that it's not a given you're going to play or not a given you're going to have a certain role and that's healthy for everyone and it's going to push everyone to be better."

Dylan Sikura is someone the Blackhawks are looking for to be a top-nine forward once he does re-join the team. He scored the game-winning goal (on the power play), had an assist and seven shots on goal in Saturday's 4-3 win over the Chicago Wolves. The same goes for Victor Ejdsell, who had two assists to give him nine points in 14 games.

On the back end, Carl Dahlstrom and Gustav Forsling are two players to keep an eye on as they appear to be the most NHL-ready. Lucas Carlsson and Darren Raddysh are building strong cases as well.

But for now, it's only fair that Colliton gives the current Blackhawks group a chance before exploring those options.

"We have to see what they have and see how they're going to adjust," Colliton said. "We're not reinventing the wheel here, but a big thing we're going to talk about is play with joy, play free, be aggressive, push the pace, be skating. And we'll see how the guys react to that and then things will become more clear."