Already red-hot, now the Blackhawks are healthy, too
They beat the reigning Stanley Cup champion Penguins even though Artem Anisimov limped off the ice early in the second period. They handled the Coyotes despite losing Niklas Hjalmarsson after just a handful of shifts. They beat the Islanders and the Predators without the red-hot Nick Schmaltz, felled by an illness.
They won with Ryan Hartman on the top line and on the third line. With Schmaltz as Jonathan Toews’ left wing and as Patrick Kane’s center. With Jordin Tootoo, Andrew Desjardins and Dennis Rasmussen playing musical chairs in the lineup. With Michal Rozsival playing 17 minutes and Brian Campbell playing 22 minutes. And with Johnny Oduya and Hjalmarsson watching in street clothes.
Despite all the injuries, illnesses and interruptions that have affected the lineup in the last couple of weeks, the Hawks won 12 of 13 games. And when they take the ice Thursday against the Ducks, they’ll be at full strength for the first time all season.
“It’s obviously a very positive thing when you can switch guys in and out, when guys are hurt, when guys are stepping up and moving up and down the lineup and switching roles and you’re still finding a way to come out with some wins,” rookie center Tanner Kero said. “And now to be at full strength, we’re excited to see what happens.”
With four days off before an extremely busy homestretch — 17 games in 31 days to close out the regular season — coach Joel Quenneville gave his veteran players the option of skipping practices Monday and Wednesday. While a few took Monday off, everyone except for injured backup goalie Scott Darling decided to skate Wednesday.
“It’s a good sign,” Quenneville said. “It was a good practice, a good pace and certainly the most guys we had on the ice in one practice all year.”
The most intriguing addition to the lineup, of course, is the veteran Oduya, who won two Stanley Cups with the Hawks in 2013 and 2015 before being reacquired from the Stars last week. He and Hjalmarsson will be reunited as the team’s shutdown pairing.
“I was here a couple of times coming back with a different team,” Oduya said. “But, of course, it’s going to be special now having the fans on your side and not against you. It’s going to be fun.”
Oduya’s arrival gives the Hawks their deepest blue line in recent memory.
“The defense looks pretty deep back there,” Kane said. “Even when we won in 2015, you had those four guys [playing a lot of minutes]. Now you add guys like [Brian] Campbell, and Rozsival’s healthy, [Trevor] van Riemsdyk’s playing at a high level and [Michal] Kempny’s been a good surprise, too. You have eight defensemen that could probably be in a lot of team’s lineups. And we were missing some forwards the past couple of games, too. It’s nice to get everyone back healthy. Hopefully, knock on wood, we can stay that way throughout the rest of the regular season and the playoffs.”
Kane physically knocked on his locker stall when he said that. Quenneville said he would “touch wood,” too, while discussing his team’s return to health. But if the last couple of weeks have proved anything, it’s that the Hawks have the versatility to make up for key absences.
And with such a busy homestretch, that could come in handy.
“It shows we have a team with a lot of guys that can step up and play different roles,” Marcus Kruger said. “It feels good that everyone’s back at practice and that we’ve got a full team. Because we’re going to need everyone.”
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