By Jeff Hamilton
WINNIPEG - Once the puck drops on Friday night’s game against the Jets, it will mark the official beginning of life without Duncan Keith.
Keith, who was suspended indefinitely by the NHL after he swung his stick and struck the face of Minnesota forward Charlie Coyle midway through the first period of Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to the Wild, will have to wait for a final decision from the Department of Player Safety after a phone hearing scheduled for Friday afternoon.
But while the seconds tick down to a final decision, the team has already begun to move forward without their all-star defenseman. And despite how difficult it will be to fill the shoes of a player who plays in every possible situation and logs the most ice time out of any of his teammates, it does open up a rare opportunity this late in the season: tryouts.
“I know that right down the stretch here we’ve got seven guys we have, we feel we have another guy that can help us as well,” said coach Joel Quenneville after the morning skate. “Their performance is going to dictate who’s going to be playing with who and the quality and the quantity of ice time that’s out there.”
For the meantime, Trevor van Riemsdyk will fill in for Keith on the top line alongside Niklas Hjalmarsson. Brent Seabrook, who missed last game with an illness, is back and will play beside Viktor Svedberg, with Michal Rozsival and Erik Gustafsson making up the third pairing.
Quenneville also hinted at some added responsibilities that could come into play tonight. He said he expects van Riemsdyk to see more time on the power play; same goes for Gustafsson and Svedberg, who will also see his penalty-kill minutes increase.
“There’s some big minutes and those are going to be important to manage and watch to see who’s taking advantage of them as well,” said Quenneville.
Up front, the Blackhawks will be without Marian Hossa, who is suffering from an illness and didn’t make the trip to Winnipeg. Thomas Fleischmann will move up to the right wing to play with Jonathan Toews and Andrew Ladd, while Brandon Mashinter will make his return to the lineup after sitting the last six games. He’ll play left wing on the third unit with Teuvo Teravainen and Dale Weise.
Artem Anisimov will also draw back into the lineup after missing the last two games with a lower-body injury. He’ll reunite with Artemi Panarin and Patrick Kane – a line that has been dangerous for most of the season but has slumped of late.
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Kane has just two assists in his last five games, while Panarin has just two in his last nine and no points in his last three.
“I think that line has had some decent stretches, (but recently it’s) not the production that they set forth earlier on,” said Quenneville. “But they still get looks in games, they’re still dangerous (and) they get a lot of attention from our opponents.
“I still think every time they hit the ice they’re a threat to score and there’s a lot of danger in their game.”
Notes: The Blackhawks are 3-1 against the Jets this season, winning the last three games against their Central Division foe but 3-5-2 in their last 10…Scott Darling will make his eighth straight start. In 25 games this season, he has a record of 9-8-3 with a 2.51 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage…Patrick Kane has three goals and two assists for five points in four games against the Jets this season.