If it were almost any other player coming back from injury, there’d be almost no chance Joel Quenneville would change his lineup after winning six straight, and nine of 10. But Patrick Sharp isn’t just any player. So the Blackhawks’ leading scorer from a year ago is expected to be back in uniform Tuesday night in New Jersey.
“He’s a big part of the lineup,” Patrick Kane said. “He adds so much. He can score, he can play fast, he can bring energy, he can shoot the puck, make plays, be on the power play. Getting a guy back like that never hurts.”
Making him fit was the only hard part. With Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa dominating Saturday night in Nashville, and Kris Versteeg, Brad Richards and Kane tearing it up over the circus trip, there’s no room on the top two lines for Sharp. To get him back in the lineup, Quenneville put him on the third line with Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw, and even switched him to right wing.
That’s fine with Sharp, who’s just itching to get back on the ice in a non-practice setting after missing 14 games with an apparent knee injury suffered Nov. 4 in Montreal.
“It’s been tough,” he said. “It’s always difficult watching, especially when the team’s on the road and you can’t really communicate and be around the guys on a day-to-day basis. It’s nice to be back joining the team and going on the road trips and hanging out, going for dinners and just being a part of the group of guys again.”
The Hawks went 11-3-0 without Sharp in the lineup, and they’ve chalked up their surge to a true four-line rotation, with nearly every player seeing at least 10 minutes of ice time per game. The hope is that Sharp replacing Joakim Nordstrom in the lineup, and bumping Daniel Carcillo down to Nordstrom’s spot next to Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith, won’t change that. But it might mean fewer minutes than Sharp is used to; Shaw’s line has been seeing the least amount of action during the hot streak.
“The team’s been playing great, no question about that,” Sharp said. “I’m just trying to come back and find a role, play the way I know I can, and try to help the team even more. … If I get in the lineup, then I’ll do whatever I’m told.”
Shaw said Sharp’s presence, while welcome and exciting, won’t change things for him.
“I’ve still got to think defense first,” he said. “We’ve got to play strong in our own end. If we do that, we’ll get those chances offensively. He’s the kind of player that’s obviously fast and he’s going to get his opportunities, so I’m excited about it.”
Sharp has taken a little bit of contact in one-on-one drills and power-play work in practice, but hasn’t taken a real hit since the one that Alexei Emelin delivered along the boards that injured him. And just like he’s not worried about playing on the right side, or playing on the third line, or messing with a good thing, he’s not worried about that, either.
“If I’m playing,” he said, “then I’ll be playing full bore. No question.”