The Blackhawks were onto something in December when they put Dennis Rasmussen, Marcus Kruger and Richard Panik together. The trio gave the Blackhawks strong defense, a little offense and a better line rotation.
When Kruger got hurt the Blackhawks lost a reliable center and that third line. But after a Rockford recall and a reconfiguration, that line is still defensively sound, bringing more offense and gaining more minutes.
Ryan Hartman, Tanner Kero and Panik have formed a great combination for the Blackhawks, and the three were again pivotal in the team's 4-3 overtime victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday night. Panik had a goal and an assist. Hartman, coming off his natural hat trick on Sunday, added two assists on Tuesday. Kero also scored his first goal of the season.
For a Blackhawks team always looking for more contributions outside of its top six, the third line's work has been a welcome sight.
"They were great tonight," coach Joel Quenneville said following Tuesday's game. "You can talk about each one of them and describe their game. They've got some physicality in the puck area, they've got some separation, counter hits where they've got the puck protected and made some good plays off the rush. They go to the net [and] they hang around the net. All their goals were like that. But they generated a lot of offense and offensive zone time, as well. They're getting better. That line was outstanding."
Hartman's work this season has been well documented. He's already got 10 goals, thanks in part to that hat trick on Sunday. In 44 games Panik has now recorded 18 points this season, a new career high for him (he had 17 points in 76 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2014-15). Kero is the newest part of this configuration; he was recalled just prior to Christmas. Also part of the Blackhawks' penalty kill, Kero has settled into that third-line center role and won a few faceoffs along the way (50 percent or better his last three games).
"We certainly like guys not only just taking advantage of opportunities but looking like they want more," Quenneville said of Kero. "And I think he's been good, watching him playing and work his way where all of a sudden we're giving him more important ice time. He's been killing penalties. You want him out there in defensive-zone situations and offensively he's got some game, as well. We'll see how it all sorts out, but he's certainly helping himself."
One of the things that's worked for this current third-line combination is what was evident on the previous one: familiarity. Hartman and Kero played plenty together in Rockford, so they know each other well. Hartman and Panik play the same type of game: be physical, get to the net, create or clean up.
"Pans, he's got so much speed. He's really powerful in the legs and can make real strong plays driving wide and taking guys to the net and taking pucks to the net," Hartman said. "When you're out there with him, he has that thing where he starts picking up speed and you're like, ‘Alright, I gotta get him the puck because he wants it.' It's nice to play with a guy like that."
An injury and some changes hasn't diminished the third line's defensive work. It may have enhanced its offensive production. Quenneville is always happy when a line shows it is worth keeping together for some time. This line is stating its case very well right now.
"I think we've been getting a little more confident and a little more comfortable together," Kero said. "We just try to focus on being good defensively, being good in our end, and then just try to use our speed. Be hard on the forecheck, create turnovers, and then try to get chances off the rush and capitalize."