Viktor Tikhonov finding his niche on Blackhawks' top line


Viktor Tikhonov finding his niche on Blackhawks' top line

Viktor Tikhonov didn’t have much time to think about the assignment when he first received it. The forward wasn’t even sure coach Joel Quenneville was talking to him when he called Tikhonov to join first liners Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa for the next shift.

“I kind of did a double take," Tikhonov recalled. "I thought I heard their names first and then mine last. I was like, ‘Wait, is that me?’ It’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s you. Let’s go,’ Two seconds later you’re on the ice and you’re playing. Luckily we had a good first shift and it was easy after that. “

Tikhonov had a few games away from that top line after that but he was back there these last two games. He’s now had the longest stint of any left wing with Toews and Hossa this early season, so apparently something is working. And Tikhonov hopes it keeps working.

The Blackhawks’ top line seems to be finding a little bit more of a rhythm lately, thanks to the trio remaining in the same. Tikhonov has added size and strength to a line that already had its share with Toews and Hossa. The three have generated some scoring opportunities and possession, two things that were absent through some earlier games.

[MORE: Jonathan Toews scores OT winner as Blackhawks top Lightning]

“He’s a big body and plays well in the offensive zone,” Toews said. “We just want to keep plays alive and have the puck a little longer and eventually things will open up. In the first number of games there, we were just one and done. We’d have maybe one chance, have the puck for 10 seconds, try to make one play, it was a turnover and we’d spend the shift in our zone. He’s a smart player; he has his head up and knows where to go. Three big bodies out there should be able to keep the pucks and eventually some things will develop offensively.”

Hossa said Tikhonov has shown his dependability.

“I think he’s the type of guy, you can rely on him coming back. He’s a good back checker,” Hossa said. “Also, he’s strong on the puck and can make some plays. The combination, we can benefit from that.”

Tikhonov has been making the most of his second go-around in the NHL. He was in the Coyotes organization from 2008-2011, spending his final season over here with the San Antonio Rampage, the Coyotes’ American Hockey League affiliate at the time. He spent the last four seasons with SKA Saint Petersburg, where he was a top-six forward and part of the power play. He also became a teammate and friend to fellow Blackhawks forward Artemi Panarin – Panarin signed with the Blackhawks in May and Tikhonov did the same in July. Tikhonov has helped Panarin learn English and has been a translator between Panarin and the coaches and media.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

But Tikhonov’s main focus here is to make the most of his NHL second chance. So far, it’s everything he hoped it would be.

“I had a little taste of it a few years back. I may have taken it for granted a little bit,” Tikhonov said. “It wasn’t easy getting there – obviously it was a tough journey. You start to relax and think, ‘Oh, you’ve made it.’ All of a sudden the next year, you’re not there anymore. So it’s a lot of hard work, a lot of hard seasons. This year I’m definitely not going to let the opportunity get away from me.”

The Blackhawks have been looking for stability, a consistent trio on that line. As of now, they may be onto something. If Tikhonov ends up on another line, he’ll take advantage of that chance in the same manner. But he’ll make the most of this top-line opportunity as long as he has it.

“Obviously this is probably one of the nicer roles to have, to be playing with those two guys,” Tikhonov said. “I’m all over the place in my game. I’ve had so many different roles the last couple of years I’m used to everything. So wherever I’m needed I’m ready to take on that role.”

Four takeaways: 'Vintage' Corey Crawford steals two points for Blackhawks


Four takeaways: 'Vintage' Corey Crawford steals two points for Blackhawks

COLUMBUS — Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Saturday:

1. Corey Crawford steals the show

The Blackhawks had no business winning this game. They were being outshot 28-15 through two periods, committed four penalties and gave up 18 high-danger chances in the game. 

But Crawford bailed out his team like he often has done in the past, and was zoned in from the moment the puck dropped. He finished with 37 saves on 38 shots for a save percentage of .974, picking up his first win since Dec. 17, 2017.

"Yeah, I felt good," Crawford said. "I think everyone was playing hard, rebounds, taking away sticks. That was a great effort by everyone."

"He was standing on his head for us," Patrick Kane said. "As Q would say, that’s a goalie win for us."

Said coach Joel Quenneville: "That was vintage Crow."

2. Tic-tac-toe leads to go-ahead goal

The Blue Jackets were clearly the better team through two periods. The Blackhawks were fortunate to go into second intermission with the game still tied at 1-1.

The next goal was crucial, and they got it thanks to a Marcus Kruger redirection goal. The next one was the dagger, a beautiful give-and-go play by Brent Seabrook and Kane, who buried home a wide open net to give the Blackhawks a 3-1 lead with 4:14 left in regulation.

Was Kane expecting Seabrook to pass it back?

"No. Not a chance," Kane said laughing. "That’s his wheelhouse, coming right down there. He scores a lot of goals from that area. Saw it was like a 2-on-2, he was coming late, he jumped in the play on the first goal, did a great job, jumped in the play on that goal. Made a great pass. When I saw it come back, I just tried to stay patient, settle it down and make sure I hit the net, because I knew I had the whole open net."

3. Busy night for PK

The Blackhawks penalty kill was very busy. It was also on it's A-game, partly because their best penalty killer was Crawford.

The Blackhawks spent 6:31 of the first 40 minutes killing penalties, allowing 11 shots total on it. But most importantly, they killed off all four penalties.

"We had some tough clears, but I thought we did some good things," Quenneville said. "We withstood some extended PK zone time there and found a way to keep us in the game. Obviously that next goal was huge and that second period was a big part of them having so much zone time, keeping us in our end. We'll say, hey good job, but Crow was the best penalty killer tonight."

4. Catching up with Kane on Artemi Panarin

Kane and Panarin spent only two seasons together, but they brought Blackhawks fans out of their seats on a nightly basis and it was amazing to watch the instant on-ice chemistry they shared. And most of it was non-verbal, which made it even more impressive. They were always on the same wavelength.

"Sometimes it takes time to build some chemistry but that was one of those things where it was like, I don't want to say instant chemistry, but after one or two preseason games we kind of new that maybe something special was going to happen," Kane told NBC Sports Chicago. "I think he scored in his first game in the NHL, we had a really good game, we had the puck a lot, we sensed that this could be a fun way to play hockey."

Off the ice, Kane said Panarin would use Google translate on his phone to communicate while Kane would try using a Russian accent while saying English words.

The two of them got a chance to hang out for a little bit on Friday and Kane still keeps tabs on his former linemate.

"I always really enjoy watching him," Kane said. "If we have an off night or something, he's a really fun player to watch."

Blackhawks and Blue Jackets both going through own challenges of Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad trade


Blackhawks and Blue Jackets both going through own challenges of Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad trade

COLUMBUS — The Blackhawks and Blue Jackets blockbuster trade from the 2017 offseason is always a hot topic in Chicago when things aren't going great. It especially is when the two teams square off against each other, like Saturday at Nationwide Arena for the first time this season.

If it wasn't already apparent in Chicago, Artemi Panarin has emerged as a real NHL superstar and is set for a giant payday when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2019. He set a Blue Jackets record with 82 points in a single season and has nine points (three goals, six assists) through six games this season.

Brandon Saad, on the other hand, had a challenging first year back with the Blackhawks in 2017-18 after netting only 35 points in 82 games and is off to a slow start this year as well with zero goals and two assists through six games. After a demotion to the fourth line, he was close to being a healthy scratch on Thursday, which only magnifies where things are at as the two get ready to clash.

But Saad was never going to be able to replace Panarin's offensive production. Everybody knows that. Yet, the offensive comparisons will always be there as a barometer and that's something Saad doesn't think about, no matter how much fans talk about it.

"I don't think I do it," he said. "We're different players. He's a great player. Fans are going to do whatever comparisons they want, but at the end of the day you've got to be true to yourself and do what you bring to the table. He's a great player around the league. You can see his highlights and his goals, he's definitely a special player. But at the end of the day I've got confidence in my abilities too. We both bring different attributes, but they're going to make comparisons regardless."

A big reason why the Blackhawks reacquired Saad, other than his ability to play a 200-foot game, is because he carries a $6 million cap hit through 2020-21, which is two years more than Panarin at the same cap hit. (It's also important to note that the Blackhawks hoped they were getting a reliable, young backup goaltender in Anton Forsberg, but the injury to Corey Crawford thrust him into a role he wasn't exactly prepared for.)

It's not all rainbows for Columbus right now regarding where things stand with Panarin, who has made it clear he's not ready to sign a long-term extension. All signs point to the 26-year-old winger hitting the market, putting the Blue Jackets in a tricky situation ahead of the trade deadline. The Blackhawks very well could have found themselves in this position, too, had a deal not been made.

Both sides are dealing with their own challenges of the trade. Saad is still a key piece to the Blackhawks' puzzle and they're hoping to get more out of him, for no other reason than the team's overall success.

"You want to have success regardless of who you're playing for, who you're traded for, things like that," Saad said. "Naturally, just as competitors, you want to bring that excitement and you want to have success with the team and personally."