Blackhawks

In a pinch, Nick Schmaltz again does the job at second-line center

In a pinch, Nick Schmaltz again does the job at second-line center

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.

Oilers, Blackhawks' play-in round opponent, release training camp roster

Oilers, Blackhawks' play-in round opponent, release training camp roster

Sunday afternoon, the Edmonton Oilers released their Phase 3 training camp roster. Training camps begin on Monday for teams competing in the NHL's 24-team playoffs under the league's Return To Play program. 

The Blackhawks, who were at No. 12 in the Western Conference at the time of the NHL pause on March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will face the No. 5 Oilers starting Aug. 1 at Edmonton in a best-of-five qualifying round. 

Related: Oiler's Mike Green opts out of NHL's Return To Play program

Edmonton invited 33 players to attend their Return To Play camp.

Forwards Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl headline the team's roster. Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith are among the five goalies listed.

Western Conference teams will head to Edmonton's ICE District hub to prepare for the postseason tournament on July 26.

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How Blackhawks' Corey Crawford's career prepared him for Oilers series

How Blackhawks' Corey Crawford's career prepared him for Oilers series

When the Blackhawks signed Vezina trophy finalist Robin Lehner to a one-year deal last offseason, many thought that would be it for Corey Crawford. They thought Lehner would run away as the No. 1 goalie in Chicago and Crawford would disappear.

Those who still doubt Crawford, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Hawks, haven't watched his career very closely. 

Just as he battled to lead the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup championship in 2015 after suffering an off-ice lower-body injury and just as he battled back to be a reliable last line of defense after multiple concussions the last couple seasons, he battled for the Hawks' net this season. 

Related: How will long layoff affect goalies in NHL's 24-team postseason?

NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes thinks it's that experience of battling and repeatedly finding his game after long layoffs from injuries that could make him a dangerous opponent for the Edmonton Oilers in the best-of-five qualifying round in the NHL's 24-team postseason kicking off Aug. 1 at Edmonton, assuming Crawford is the Hawks' starting goalie. The Blackhawks begin their training camp for the postseason on Monday.

"For somebody that hasn't gone through (injuries) before, there's so many unknowns and then maybe there's question marks and the mental elevator starts creeping up at times in ways that aren't helpful," Weekes, a former NHL goalie, told NBC Sports Chicago over the phone. "But the fact that he's had that experience in battling back from injury and coming back a long way and having extended layoffs, this isn't foreign to him. 

"So in that respect, it should be beneficial in a weird way and also give him the chance to heal up and rest up even more by way of this extended pause. I think that those things play in his favor. Those things should be playing in his favor for sure."

Related: How Blackhawks can beat Oilers with 'wealth of success' in qualifying round

This year, Crawford competed hard for the No. 1 goalie role. Leading up to the NHL pause on March 12, he had made 39 starts (16-20-3) and had a goals-against average of 2.77 with a .917 save percentage before the Hawks traded Lehner to the Vegas Golden Knights ahead of the trade deadline. With the Blackhawks, Lehner made 31 starts (16-10-5) and had a goals-against average of 3.01 and a .918 save percentage. Both tenders' numbers were hurt by an often struggling Hawks defense this year.

"I've always been a huge advocate of Crow. Crow's had an excellent run in Chicago," Weekes said. "I think the biggest challenge for him, which we all know, which isn't a state secret, (there's) just been some health challenges and he always battles back. Crow's a guy that'll battle and he's been able to come a long way back and rediscover his game, which is hard to do after layoffs, let alone multiple ones. 

"And I think this year, once he got back, talking to their goalie coach in Jimmy Waite and you got to credit Jimmy because he's put in so much work to be able to regroup Crow, numerous times. So this season specifically, when he first started, it was a little bit of a slow start as expected because he had such an extended layoff. 

Related: What's Blackhawks' key to victory over Oilers in NHL play-in series?

"But, I really think with them having Robin Lehner, it really helped because they didn't have to throw Crow right into the fire. And then Crow hit his stride and he's playing really well. ... He's played really well, coming down the stretch he looked excellent as well and that's great news for the Hawks because they're going to need him, especially in a shorter series in this play-in round against Edmonton and the fact that Crow has the experience that he does, he's played in huge games. 

"He's played in, obviously, Stanley Cup (finals). He's a winner, he's not afraid of the big stage. He's not afraid to play in a place like Chicago, he thrives on that and not to mention, internationally for Team Canada. I think where they're concerned, as far as his ability and his talent, he just looks like himself right now, which is great news for the Hawks and I know that his teammates have a lot of confidence in him so as long as he's able to... I know he's been on the ice, as long as he's healthy and feeling good they've got a good shot because he's been there before and he's done it before. 

"It's a unique opportunity for him and for his team, but he can lean on that experience of having played in big spots like the Stanley Cup Final and playoffs for years. That could be an advantage for the Hawks actually in that respect."

It's not clear who will start in net yet for the Oilers. Mikko Koskinen was 18-13-3 this year with a 2.75 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage and Mike Smith was 19-12-6 with a 2.95 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage. 

Although some of their numbers may measure up to Crawford's, neither goalie's journey can compare to his.

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