What nerves? Rookies holding their own alongside Blackhawks' veterans

What nerves? Rookies holding their own alongside Blackhawks' veterans

Ryan Hartman had two choices as he and Marian Hossa broke on a 2-on-1 vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins: keep the puck and take the shot yourself, or pass it to the guy who's scored 525 goals in his career.

He passed to Hossa, and if you saw Wednesday's game you know the result. But even if Hartman had taken the shot himself, he figured his line mate wouldn't get angry.

"That goal the other night, if I shot the puck I don't think Hoss would've had too many hard feelings about it. I think he would've understood I made a hockey play," Hartman said. "We're all professionals here, and I may have saw something that was open. But the right play was to get that across to him, and he scored a nice goal."

The on-ice choices are there for every player. But if you're a young guy playing with a veteran, you might weigh every decision that much more. The Blackhawks' rookies have lined up with the team's multi-Cup winners throughout this season, and while there might have been early jitters, most of the young guys have played well alongside the veterans.

"(For) every guy, it's a different story," coach Joel Quenneville said. "Certainly you don't want to try to make plays or try to get certain guys the puck because it's too noticeable and easy to defend. But there are certainly advantages of playing with those (veteran) guys. They're better with the puck, so make sure you guys keep the puck and we'll go to the net and keep it simple."

Hartman and Hossa have found some success on that third line. Nick Schmaltz has carved his niche with Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik. Tanner Kero has worked well with Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin in Artem Anisimov's absence. For the rookies, it was important to just focus on the game, to just play hockey and trust their instincts. Still, there were some feelings of intimidation.

"Maybe a little at the start," Schmaltz said. "Maybe you're trying to get them the puck a little too much or forcing things that aren't there. You're not playing your game. You're a little shocked to be playing with those guys, but more and more you get comfortable with how they play and you realize it's another player. You try not to think about all the things they've done throughout their careers."

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Kero agreed.

"You're just looking around the dressing room and you see all those big names, all those great players and you're a little star struck right away," he said. "But once you're on the ice, you play hockey."

The dynamic in the Blackhawks' room helps, too. Regardless of how much individual players have won the team mentality always comes first. Every veteran started as a wide-eyed rookie, and they're willing to help and teach the new guys what they've learned over the years.

"I think as a young guy that's definitely something. You're really nervous coming in here, working with all those guys. You don't know whether you should say stuff, or ask a stupid question. But they made it really comfortable for all of us coming in," said Vinnie Hinostroza, who played with Toews a few games earlier this season. "All these guys have been so welcoming this year and really helped us make the adjustment."

The Blackhawks' rookies have been a big part of the team's success this season. Playing alongside guys who have won Stanley Cups, Hart and Conn Smythe trophies can be intimidating, but the Blackhawks' young players have handled it like they've been here for years.

"The goal is to win as a team every game and doesn't matter who's scoring. It's just that all these guys are unselfish, and you have to be a team-first guy to have the success they've had the last 10 years," Schmaltz said. "Everyone's buying in and everyone's team first."

Blackhawks’ Kirby Dach emerging as star and living up to 'playoff performer' hype

Blackhawks’ Kirby Dach emerging as star and living up to 'playoff performer' hype

Ask anyone in Chicago who the standout of training camp 2.0 was and you'll hear one name: Kirby Dach.

“He has all the potential in the world,” Patrick Kane said. “He can be a top player in the league.”

“He’s got the potential to be a great player in this league and a great player for the Blackhawks for a long time," echoed Brent Seabrook.

Upon hearing this enormous praise from a pair of three-time Stanley Cup champions and joining the hype train myself, I couldn’t help but think: Are we putting unfair expectations on a kid who’s still only 19?

The answer: Nope. Because he can handle it.

Dach looks like a completely different player after finally having an “offseason” to recharge, both mentally and physically. And it’s showing in the postseason.

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Through three games in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, Dach has four points — all assists — and a team-best plus-4 rating; in total, he’s been on the ice for eight of the Blackhawks’ 13 goals so far. He became the first Blackhawks rookie to register at least one point in his first three postseason games since Eddie Olczyk in 1985. 

All those numbers are great, but here’s the eye-opener: Dach is averaging 20:21 of ice time in the postseason, which trails only Patrick Kane (22:21) among team forwards. He led all Blackhawks forwards with 23:21 of ice time in Wednesday’s Game 3 comeback win over the Edmonton Oilers, which was, by far, a career high for Dach, who averaged 14:16 of ice time during the regular season.

The Blackhawks are giving him an enormous amount of responsibility, whether it's top-six minutes at even strength, power-play time on the first unit and penalty kill reps. And Dach is handling it about as well as you could ask for.

"He loves responsibility and he thrives on it," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "We knew, based on how he looked in training camp, that he was ready to take a bigger role here. He's been great. He's been as advertised."

Dach isn't just making an impact on the scoresheet, either. He's doing the little things right, too.

Olli Maatta scored the first goal in Game 3 after his shot from the point got past Oilers goaltender Mikko Koskinen, but that puck doesn't go in without the 6-foot-4, 197-pound Dach wreaking havoc in front of the net. Those plays don't go unnoticed inside the locker room.

"It shows that the coach trusts in your abilities to get a job done," Dach said of the added responsibility. "And as a player, it's a welcoming challenge. You want to be put in those situations and succeed in them."

One of the main reasons why the Blackhawks selected Dach third overall in 2019 was because of the way he elevated his game in the Western Hockey League playoffs. He was the engine for the Saskatoon Blades and the focal point for opponents yet thrived off the attention.

“He does all the things that can wow you, but then he does the other stuff, too," GM Stan Bowman said the day the Blackhawks drafted Dach. "He was great at stripping pucks, he was great at backchecking, he was great at the physical play when the series got pretty intense in the playoffs and it was clear they were targeting him. He not only took it, he gave it back. It was impressive to see him raise his game at a time of year when it matters most, which is playoff hockey.

"You watch the NHL playoffs and you see how intense it can be and then you look at the way he plays, and you can see that that game translates."

It sure does.

Whether he can be a big-time point producer in the NHL remains to be seen, but it's clear Dach is the kind of player whose game is better suited for the playoffs than the regular season. And we're seeing why.

How Blackhawks' unlikely heroes on defense are providing boost in Oilers series

How Blackhawks' unlikely heroes on defense are providing boost in Oilers series

Jonathan Toews was dominant in Game 1's 6-4 win and he was back at it in Game 3. But, with the special teams woes the Oilers have been causing the Hawks in touting a power play that was No. 1 in the NHL at the time of the pause and a penalty kill that was No. 2, not to mention the top two points leaders in the league during the regular season (Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid), Chicago needed some unlikely heroes to emerge in the series.

Enter Blackhawks defensemen Connor Murphy, Olli Maatta and Slater Koekkoek.

With Game 3 tied 3-3 and just 1:16 remaining early Thursday morning, Murphy fired a wrist shot to put the Hawks ahead. It even appeared as if he scored the goal himself at first, but Toews was credited with his second goal of the game on the play and Murphy with the primary assist. The D-man finished Game 3 with a +/- rating of +1 in 21:55 of ice time.

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"Just a lucky bounce," a modest Murphy said of his play that helped the Blackhawks take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series, having the Oilers facing elimination in Friday's Game 4. "Didn’t throw (a) hard one at the net. I saw Tazer had good position. He was all alone in front, should be able to get a tip on it. ... Just those last minutes of games, every faceoff’s so huge, obviously that one being a big one to get a shot off."

Koekkoek got the primary assist on Matthew Highmore's first career postseason goal which tied the game 3-3 at 14:13 of the third.

Maatta scored the first goal of the game 9:14 into the opening frame off a pass from Patrick Kane and picked up the secondary assist on Highmore's goal. 

"He's got experience from playing in the playoffs, it's nice to have that, and he's done a great job defensively, killing penalties and he's calm back there," Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said of Maatta, who won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins before coming to the Hawks, after the game. "He's been able to chip in offensively, too, that's always a bonus. Our D as a whole are doing a great job of getting pucks through and getting it to the net, and we're going to need to continue to do that."

Related: Blackhawks overcome special teams woes, complete comeback in Game 3

Maatta has a two-game goal streak in the series and he and his D-partner, Koekkoek, were the only blueliners in Game 2's 6-3 loss with a positive +/- rating (+2). Maatta had one goal in Game 2 and Koekkoek a goal and an assist.

"I think we do a great job whenever we get in the zone, our forwards do a great job holding onto the puck. That makes them collapse a little bit. They do a good job of giving us the puck with a little more time. It hasn't been only me and Kooks," Maatta said of the Hawks blueline's contributions to the series. "It's been Haaner (Calvin de Haan) and Murph and Duncs (Duncan Keith) and Boqi (Adam Boqvist). They're getting pucks through and it feels like every time we get it to the net our forwards are in good position, battling for them, getting rebounds, getting tips. It makes it tough for them."

According to Murphy, with the way the Blackhawks' forwards and D have been effectively collaborating in the offensive zone, it's best for Chicago's defensemen to just keep firing pucks on net when they can.

"It’s always part of your game plan," Murphy said. "Especially our forwards draw good attention when they’re entering the zone, knowing that we’ve got a lot of firepower in them, a lot of skill and strength. They do a good job of drawing wingers down to them. It leaves a couple of open shots. Kooks and Olli have been hot lately and have really smart shots they get through, go in. That’s always a good plan."