Blackhawks’ ability to roll all four forward lines in playoff-like matchup with Wild shows full potential of a lineup deeper than many assumed
The Blackhawks’ 5-3 victory in Minnesota Tuesday night at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul had that intangible feeling of a playoff game–a feeling the Hawks seem to be carrying with them to every arena they visit on the road the last few weeks or so. A victory that keeps hopes of catching the top team in the Western Conference alive also serves as a crucial measuring stick for a Hawks team that’s looked its best as of late.
Let’s cover a few of the glaring positives to come from last night’s huge win in Minny.
The Toews Line
There really is no substitute for chemistry. In the time since Jonathan Toews’ 4 point game against the Vancouver Canucks on January 22nd, the captain has recorded 7 goals and 9 assists (16 points) in just 11 games. I’ve wrote quite a bit lately on the Hawks’ need for a top-six left wing to accompany Toews on that line before the deadline passes, but Richard Panik and Nick Schmaltz are making the case that they may in fact be the answer to those concerns.
Last night all three forwards on that top line were infinitely dangerous. They won almost every one-on-one battle they were engaged in, and their vision and anticipation of each others’ locations was reminiscent of Blackhawks’ years past. They sported 10 points collectively as a line, and their time of possession was the highest it’s been all season.
Richard Panik is proving himself to be a uniquely valuable player on a nightly basis. His willingness to take a beating in front of the net and occupy defensemen opens up opportunities for his linemates to pick up loose change and bang home rebounds. Joel Quenneville has obviously taken note of this selfless style, and has been awarding Panik with some time on a power-play unit that has every type of weapon imaginable on it (Panarin, Toews, Kane, and Keith).
As for Nick Schmaltz, I’m beginning to believe that confidence was the only thing missing from his game earlier in the year. He was phenomenal last night, and made a couple of plays that made him look a lot like 2015 Brandon Saad. His willingness to peel off the wall and walk the puck to the slot for a high-percentage shot is a symptom of surging confidence, and it couldn’t come a better time. Schmaltz being a right-handed shot playing the left side also sets up one-timer opportunities for both of his linemates as well as himself.
The Kid Line’s Energy
Ryan Hartman, Tanner Kero, and Vinnie Hinostroza looked like a line of energizer bunnies last night. They exploded off the bench every opportunity they got, and maintained offensive zone-time for entire shifts at a time all night long. The sheer energy and effort they played with also drew a penalty in the third. It’s super refreshing to see a third-line possess the puck and be offensively dangerous. Regardless of whether their opportunities translate into goals, they take pressure off of the top two lines when they play the way they did last night.
Chemistry on the back end as well
To continue with the chemistry theme, I thought all six defensemen, Trevor van Riemsdyk included, looked efficient last night. I think a lot of this can be attributed to a growing comfort level that comes with maintaining specific pairings. Pairings could change when the playoffs start, but TVR looked very comfortable playing with Brian Campbell last night. They used each other as effective outlets in the neutral and defensive zones, and found each other in the offensive zones to keep the play alive and cycle the puck up high.
Brent Seabrook was stellar last night as well. Seabs was a plus 2, had 2 shots on goal (a third that rang off the iron), and had a few crucial shot-blocks. His play can be overlooked at times, but he is an anchor of stability on the Hawks’ back end. As a result of his excellent play, his partner Michal Kempny saw a spike in ice time, and he looked comfortable paired with No. 7. Kempny sported a positive plus/minus last night as well. I’m a fan of the pairings the Hawks utilized last night.
Things are certainly looking up
Last night was a super promising victory for the Blackhawks. It was a must-win in terms of their hopes of catching the Wild in the standings (and keeping San Jose and Anaheim at bay), but the wonders it will do for the team’s confidence is equally important. This team is firing on all cylinders right now, and winning close games with playoff-bound teams is an exciting trend. Goaltending has been consistently good enough, and the ability to roll all four lines is something we haven’t seen from the Blackhawks all year.
With that said, we as fans still need to maintain perspective. The ability of players like Richard Panik and Nick Schmaltz sustaining this level of play remains to be seen, but it’s likely pretty dependent on Jonathan Toews’ ability to continue dominating. Moving forward, I still like the Hawks’ propensity to pick up one more top-six forward to play with Toews. It would make the forward combinations virtually endless, and render this lineup as complete as it’s ever been.
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