Blackhawks

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Blackhawks

Ryan Hartman was on the ice in the waning minutes of the Blackhawks' game against the Dallas Stars on Feb. 4, a rookie thrown into a critical situation after earning the extra responsibility.

Good thing, because Hartman's diving block of a Jamie Benn shot probably saved the Blackhawks two points. It certainly saved them a trip to overtime.

"Situations like that can only improve your game as you're going along, add that depth to our team," coach Joel Quenneville said. "We're going to need these kids to be playing in some crucial situations and applying it now, it's a good learning curve."

As good as this stretch run is for the Blackhawks overall, it's especially good for their young players. The hockey is that much more intense, that much more meaningful. Some teams are looking to improve their postseason seeding. Some teams are still fighting to get into the playoffs. Either way, the tests are plentiful and a good primer for young players for the postseason.

And that's fine with them.

"This time of the year has always been my favorite (since) coming up through juniors," Hartman said. "That's when the real teams show up, and that's when that playoff drive and that desperation comes for some teams that are fighting for playoffs spots. It's a fun time of year, and I think we're all ready for the challenge."

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Quenneville has given more responsibility to young players who have earned it. Hartman has gotten more — playing in late-game situations is part of that. Tanner Kero has, too.

"It's good for getting that experience and trying to get confidence in those big, tough games," Kero said. "You know how hard you have to work and the little things are so important, all throughout the game. That one play could cost you or could go in your net. You have to work hard every shift and can't take a shift off."

Dennis Rasmussen has gone from a bubble player to a consistent bottom-six player, be it on the wing or at center. Rasmussen wasn't here for the Blackhawks' postseason in 2016, but he could be here this time around. If so, these games mean a lot.

"If you want to be a team that wins in the end, you have to be a team that gets better every day — team and players, especially the young guys, the rookies," Rasmussen said. "I count myself as a young guy, and I feel I need to get better if we want to win it. That's the focus we have every practice and every game."

Since September, the Blackhawks have said they need everyone to contribute this season. That goes for the postseason, too. Who knows if all of them will be here once the playoffs start. But for those who are, the more they learn, the more responsibility they take on and the more they succeed, the better the overall team will be.

"We need them to improve and to be a part of it, playing in key situations," Quenneville said. "Their enthusiasm is healthy for our team as well. We're putting them in situations where the experience will be necessary."