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Artem Anisimov happy to toil in the shadows of his wingers

On the right is arguably the biggest star in hockey these days, the league’s leading scorer and most dynamic player, Patrick Kane. On the left is maybe the NHL’s next big star, a sniper with Kane’s creativity and flair, the league’s top rookie, Artemi Panarin.

In the middle? That’s the unassuming, unglamorous, underrated Artem Anisimov, doing all the dirty work in the crease and in the corners and in his own end, while his wingers get all the love and all the attention.

Just the way he likes it.

“It’s great,” Anisimov said with a smile. “I can just go out and play hockey and have fun.”

Shy isn’t the right word for Anisimov. When you see him chatting conspiratorially in Russian with Panarin in the far corner of the Blackhawks dressing room, they’re often giggling. And on the ice, he was once best known for an over-the-top goal celebration in which he pretended his stick was a gun, which he “fired” at Lightning goaltender Mathieu Garon.

But Anisimov is a reluctant star, happy to work in relative anonymity. Thoughtful and intelligent, but self-conscious about his English, he’ll grant interviews almost grudgingly, just so long as it’s with just one or two reporters at a time. The small-town feel of Columbus suited him just fine, but his situation in Chicago couldn’t be better — he’s on a contender without being the focal point, in the middle of the action, but not the spotlight.

He wasn’t sure what to expect when the Hawks acquired him from the Blue Jackets in the Brandon Saad trade. But it’s worked out far better than he expected.

“Yeah,” he said, searching for a more elaborate way to put it, but failing. “Yeah.”

Valuable, not verbose.

It’s worked out far better than the Hawks expected, too. General manager Stan Bowman coveted Anisimov as the big, reliable, two-way center the Hawks needed behind Jonathan Toews. It’s why Bowman signed the 27-year-old to a five-year extension before he even put on a Hawks sweater. And he’s been as good as advertised defensively and on the penalty kill.

But nobody saw the offense coming — 15 goals through 42 games, the pivot on one of the best lines in hockey, and the sturdy net-front presence on the power play the Hawks have been lacking. He had scored a career-high 22 goals in 2013-14, but slipped to just seven last season, partially hampered by injuries.

“He’s on pace to score 30 goals; that wasn’t really the expectation,” Bowman said recently. “You always hope guys are going to do that, but I just expected him to be a really nice complement to Jonathan, and a guy that can do everything.”

Joel Quenneville has been just as pleasantly surprised.

“I didn’t know he had that patience level, and those nifty moves, as well,” Quenneville said. “He has a nice finish to his game, he’s got a willingness to get in front of the net as much as any player we have on our team.”

That net-front work suits Anisimov perfectly. At 6-4, he’s an ideal screen, and he’s strong enough to handle the cross-checks and ankle-slashes that usually go uncalled in the crease. It’s the ugly work few players really want to do. It’s physical, and it’s hard, and it often leads to goals for the team, but not points for the player. Again, success without the spotlight — right up Anisimov’s alley.

“You need to pay the price for the goals,” he said. “Everybody wants to play like Patrick plays, or like Artemi plays, but somebody needs to do the hard work, too — to go to the net and create space for them and take away the goalie’s eyes. All the little things.”

His teammates see it. And they certainly appreciate it.

“He’s the guy that kind of does all the dirty work and the little things that make us successful,” Kane said. “He probably deserves more credit than anyone on the line.”

Maybe. But as long as the Hawks keep winning and Anisimov keeps having fun, you won’t hear him complain.

“He’s been huge for us,” Duncan Keith said. “He’s underrated as far as helping that line, and making it go. I’m not taking anything away from the two wingers, because we know what they’ve done, but Arty — he’s been great.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus