With five new forwards and two new defensemen to weave into his long-established core, the trick for Joel Quenneville in the early going this season is to find the right combinations —the right lines, the right defensive pairings, the right five-man groups, the right power-play units, the right penalty-killing units.
But it’s a fine line between tinkering and not giving each combination a chance to breathe, to find itself, to mess up, to learn, and to jell. After two poor showings to open the season, though, Quenneville tried yet again to find the right look for Saturday’s rematch with the Nashville Predators.
“We know the urgency of tonight’s game, and the importance of it,” Quenneville said before Game No. 3 of 82.
And so Vinnie Hinostroza moved to the top line, Marian Hossa was dumped down to the fourth line, and Artemi Panarin and Patrick Kane were reunited yet again. Richard Panik stayed put on the top line, though.
Panik’s first career hat trick and several Scott Darling highlight-reel saves lifted the Hawks to an encouraging, but still flawed, 5-3 victory over the Predators, their first of the season.
Panik looked like a 2013-era Bryan Bickell on Saturday, throwing his weight around on the forecheck and driving the net, scrounging for loose pucks. His goals came on a spin-o-rama in the crease, a net-crashing tip-in of a Marian Hossa feed, and another hard-charging potting of a Patrick Kane pass.
Quenneville has said that Panik’s at his best when he’s being physical, and it showed.
“It gets me into the game,” said Panik, who wasn’t even sure when he last scored a hat trick, but thought it might have come in juniors. “When I got hit or get hits, it’s just part of my game. Every game, I want to start with that.”
The Hawks were still badly outshot (16-8 in the first period, 36-27 overall) and still shaky on the penalty kill (giving up their seventh power-play goal in three games), but they were a little sharper, far more active offensively, and got terrific goaltending from Darling.
Darling, who made his name with his brilliant performance in the first round of the playoffs against Nashville in 2015, was superb from the start, making a stop on familiar foe Colin Wilson five minutes in. One shift later, rookies Tyler Motte and Schmaltz combined to steal the puck in the offensive zone, and Schmaltz sniped a wrist shot from the left circle for his first NHL goal.
“It feels really good to get it out of the way,” Schmaltz said. “Hopefully I can continue that and continue putting pucks in the net and keep getting some bounces.”
Brent Seabrook scored a power-play goal and Panik had his spin-o-rama goal just 10 seconds after yet another Darling stop on Wilson as the Hawks raced out to a 3-0 lead in the first 10:19. Nashville’s backup goaltender, Marek Mazanec, didn’t fare as well as Darling did, giving up three goals on the first five shots.
But Wilson scored late in the first and Craig Smith scored a power-play goal late in the second (while the struggling Artem Anisimov sat out his fourth penalty of the season) to cut the lead to 3-2. Panik and Viktor Arvidsson traded goals in the third before Panik put the game away with 1:31 left in the game.
Sure, it was only Game 3. But dropping six points to Central Division opponents in the first week of the season hardly would have been ideal.
“I think we needed that one just to keep it rolling into the next few games, the next couple weeks,” said Nick Schmaltz, who scored his first career goal to open the scoring. “It’s good to get the first one, get that winning feeling in the locker room. And hopefully, we have a lot more wins to come here.”