Blackhawks: Vermette gaining victories, confidence on face-offs


Blackhawks: Vermette gaining victories, confidence on face-offs

Winning face-offs: the Blackhawks have had their moments in that category, with Jonathan Toews long being the most consistent player there.

It was one of the reasons Antoine Vermette was acquired by the Blackhawks at the trade deadline. His first round numbers, coming off healthy-scratch status in the first two games against the Nashville Predators, were OK.

“It’s match-ups, sometimes,” said Vermette, who admitted he wasn’t sure what his first-round win percentages were. “You get to know the opponent a little better than some guys. Sometimes you get on a roll as well and you get a little rhythm in your face-off as well.

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Well, Vermette got on a roll that had him at his face-off best in the second round.  After winning 44.4 to 65 percent of his face-offs against the Predators, Vermette took off against the Minnesota Wild, his winning percentages ranging from 55.6 percent (Game 3) to as high as 80 percent (Game 4). All those victories were a big help for the Blackhawks, who swept the Wild and will face the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Final, beginning on Sunday.

“I thought he improved tremendously in the dot. [When] you’re out there against other lines, in your own end, the emphasis on winning or just getting it out cleanly is what we look for. And he won several big faceoffs in our own end, and it helps us,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “He did a good job; I thought he progressed in his 5-on-5 play, as well. So it was a good series for him.”

Confidence is a pivotal part of any player’s game. Vermette’s confidence probably wasn’t too high as the playoffs began, and he was a healthy scratch in Games 1 and 2 vs. Nashville. But as he’s played through this postseason he’s looking better, especially in the face-off circle.

Still, it’s a fine line between a face-off win and loss.

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“It’s pretty tight,” Vermette said. “At that point you hear a lot about details: every team, every center tries to do the best with it. Certainly the faceoff area, everyone’s trying to get an advantage right off the bat. You start with the puck or you’re chasing it; the difference is slim. Sometimes you get bounces here and there but for the most part, you try to give yourself a better chance.”

Vermette has given himself and the Blackhawks a chance with his face-off victories. He has won 67 of his 104 postseason face-offs (64.4 percent). He knows that percentage is a bit inflated – Toews is at 50.7 percent, but has taken 123 more face-offs this postseason. Still, he’s back to winning at the dot, which is his strength.

“I’ve been around enough to know that, you want to reach for that [higher percentage] for sure but 55 is usually pretty good. You want to be that,” said Vermette, who says he’s feeding off that confidence. “There’s momentum, timing, different opponent. There’s a good thing going on you want to feed off it, for sure.”

Nick Schmaltz to play first game at United Center since being traded by Blackhawks

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Nick Schmaltz to play first game at United Center since being traded by Blackhawks

Former Blackhawks center Nick Schmaltz was dealt a tough hand last season. The Hawks traded the Madison, Wisc., native to the Arizona Coyotes for Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini on Nov. 25, 2018. 

"Probably for the first couple weeks it was still shocking and different to be part of a new organization," Schmaltz said. "But as you get more comfortable with everyone, I would say a couple months probably before it sunk in, but I felt comfortable right away."

Then, after recording 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 17 games with the Coyotes, Schmaltz had season-ending knee surgery. 

"It was tough," the 23-year-old said. "It wasn't like one specific thing that blew out my knee or anything, it was just nagging me over time. Obviously it was tough, I had to sit out 40 games or whatever. 

"So that was frustrating, especially because the team was doing well and I was feeling really comfortable. So it was frustrating, but happy to be back and we got off to a good start so far (currently second in the Pacific division)."

Some good fortune came Schmaltz's way when Arizona gave him a seven-year contract for $40.95 million in March.

Sunday marks his first game back at the United Center. 

"I think I'll have a lot of energy," said Schmaltz, who will have family in attendance. "I think I'll be excited. I don't think there'll be too many nerves or anything, I think it'll be fun to play against those guys and I'll be ready to go."

Schmaltz logged a lot of ice time playing with Patrick Kane when he was with Chicago from 2016-2018. 

"He was great to play with," Kane said of Schmaltz. "One of those guys I really enjoyed playing with because he was so fast and as a centerman he really did a good job of taking the puck up the middle of the ice, drawing guys to him then kind of kicking it to the wing and still driving through his feet to the point where the defense had to decide whether to honor him and go back to him or come with me and leave him open. 

"He was really good in that regard, a lot of speed up the middle. I really enjoyed playing with him and developing chemistry with him the years he was here.

"He's a good kid too. I really enjoyed being around him, hanging out with him, golfing with him, things like that. I enjoyed his time here."

Schmaltz's unique golfing style impressed Kane as much as his hockey skills did.

"Really good," Kane said of his former teammate's golf game. "It's funny when he hits it, the ball doesn't come very far off the ground, but it just goes a mile and he does the opposite with his irons, he hits them so high and then they just land and stop. He's a good golfer."

"He's got his days, he's kind of up and down," Schmaltz said of Kane swinging the clubs. "He can go low 80s or he can fire 100, it just depends how he's feeling. We've had a few games. It's a lot of fun playing with him."

Dylan Sikura out to prove he can be 'everyday kind of guy' with Blackhawks

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Dylan Sikura out to prove he can be 'everyday kind of guy' with Blackhawks

The Blackhawks recalled forward Dylan Sikura from the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League, the team announced Sunday morning. In a corresponding move for financial reasons, Anton Wedin was reassigned to Rockford after four games with the Blackhawks.

Sikura leads the IceHogs in goals (nine), points (16) and shots on goal (99) in 22 games this season. He was on a three-game point streak (one goal, two assists) prior to the call-up. 

Back in Chicago for the third year — first this season — Sikura is out to prove he can stay for good.

"I think this time around just prove that I can play, I can stay, be an everyday kind of guy up here," Sikura said. "There's times last year towards the end of the year where I was proving myself a little bit and I'm excited to get a fresh start and another chance here."

The biggest challenge for Sikura in the NHL has always been making the most of the minutes he gets at even strength. In college, he played in all situations. In Rockford, he was a top-line player and a key piece to the first power-play unit.

But it's difficult for him to get those same opportunities in Chicago on a roster with Alex DeBrincat, Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad, Dylan Strome and Jonathan Toews carrying the offensive load.

Sikura has 11 assists in 38 games across two seasons with the Blackhawks, but he's still searching for his first career NHL goal, which is something that weighed on his mind going into the summer. He takes a lot of pride in contributing on the scoresheet, and he's hoping the goals come naturally for him this time around.

"Absolutely," a smiling Sikura said. "I think that's something that's important for me. Down there, I get opportunities to score goals and obviously that's something I'd like to do at this level so hopefully we can put this to rest soon."

Sunday's game against the Arizona Coyotes will be Sikura's third in as many days. He played in Grand Rapids on Friday, Rockford on Saturday, got the call-up after the game and drove to Chicago around midnight.

It's unclear where he'll slot into the lineup, but the Blackhawks are pleased with his body of work and felt it was time to give Sikura a shot with the big club.

"I think he showed that he can contribute with us with his pace of play," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "I thought his line, when I looked back at him, Toews and Saad [last season], they had a really good stretch where they were driving possession and giving us offensive zone time and that line came through with some production too. He didn't necessarily score, but he was a part of that.

"Just energy and work ethic, and he has some skill too. But it's not unlike a lot of young players — just finding a way to do it every single shift every single night. We're looking for that throughout our lineup, so if he can bring it that'll help him."

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