MONTREAL – Nick Schmaltz didn't wait for the puck to settle down along the boards, instead immediately passing to the slot, where Artemi Panarin soon arrived, collected the puck and scored what proved to be the game-winning goal.
A guess Panarin would be there? Luck? Something else?
“Awareness. You know where your line mates are on the ice,” Schmaltz said. “They’re pretty predictable, always in the same areas, always find that open space. It makes my job pretty easy.”
And with Artem Anisimov now slated to miss a few weeks, second-line center will be Schmaltz’s job.
Anisimov, considered day-to-day not long after he sustained his left-leg injury against the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night, will now miss 3-4 weeks, coach Joel Quenneville told the traveling media on Wednesday. Anisimov was seen late Wednesday morning at the airport in Montreal on Wednesday morning. Wearing a walking boot on his left leg, Anisimov was heading back to Chicago. But in Anisimov’s absence, the Blackhawks are more than confident that Schmaltz can handle the job.
“Very comfortable with him in the middle with those two guys,” Quenneville said following the Blackhawks’ 4-2 victory over Montreal. “It seems both times he stepped in with them in the middle of a game, it looks like he belongs there. So it’s been a good fit between the three of them. They’re dangerous off the rush, they see plays. Schmaltz in the faceoff circle, not taking draws while playing with Jonny [Toews] there, it’s something he can spend a little time doing. But we like him with the puck and with those guys.”
Schmaltz filled the second-line center spot rather seamlessly on March 1, when Anisimov hobbled off early in the Blackhawks’ victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Yes, the faceoffs would be an issue but as it stands, especially with Anisimov likely not missing much time, it’s still a solid option.
“Great job,” Kane said of Schmaltz’s work there on Tuesday. “I think when he gets that chance, it looks like he’s excited. He played the first time there so he’s excited about playing there. If we get him moving his feet in the middle, skating with a lot of speed he can back off a lot of D we have a chance to get some odd-man rushes. He brings that speed element to the line. We saw tonight we had three or four 2-on-1s and he made a couple great plays on a couple of goals as well. Good to see him skate like that in the middle and that’s probably what we’ll try to stress for him to bring the most.”
Regardless of his line mates, Schmaltz is often still too reluctant to shoot – he admits that. But passing to Kane or Panarin usually yields good results.
“Yeah, obviously they’re two great players who make it pretty easy to play. I just drive to the net and create space for them and try to give them the puck as much as I can. Maybe shoot more. I had a couple of chances and I probably should’ve shot a few of those,” Schmaltz said. “But I felt comfortable in there and easy to play with.”
Does Schmaltz fill that second-line center void the entire time Anisimov’s out? We shall see. We all know how line changes happen with this team. But as of now, Schmaltz has proven he can do the job there.