Nick Schmaltz gets another chance on Blackhawks’ top line

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Nick Schmaltz controls the puck against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday. (Getty Images)

As two Blues defenders converged on Artemi Panarin early in the second period Wednesday night, Nick Schmaltz slipped undetected and undefended into the slot. Looking over his left shoulder, he saw Duncan Keith winding up for a shot, so Schmaltz turned and headed for the goal in search of a rebound.

Only Keith wasn’t shooting. He was passing — the kind of shot-fake, slap-pass he’s perfected over the years. The puck zipped right past Schmaltz, who had to simply chase the puck down in the corner.

Lesson No. 1 of playing with top guys in the NHL: Keep your head on a swivel.

“Those guys see plays that most guys don’t,” Schmaltz said. “I’ve just got to make sure I’m always ready for the puck, because I’m probably going to get it when I’m not expecting it. Make sure I’m always facing the play and trying to get open for them.”

Schmaltz’s stay on the top line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane didn’t last long, as he and Richard Panik swapped places in the second period. Schmaltz then took over for Artem Anisimov on the second line after Anisimov was injured.

But Schmaltz will get another crack at the top line left-wing spot Friday night against the Washington Capitals.

“I don’t think you want to change his game,” Joel Quenneville said. “We want him to play his game and play to our strengths, how we want to play. But certainly, the offensive-zone starts and offensive-zone opportunities are enhanced playing with those guys, and his creativity could complement the guys that he’s around. Hopefully, he has the puck more and he does [get] more offensive-zone time.”

Schmaltz doesn’t have to worry just about the high-end skill of his own linemates, though. Toews also is one of the best shutdown defenders in the league, so his line often draws the other team’s most skilled players. So the matchups are tougher on the top line than the third line, too. Schmaltz said that’s the biggest adjustments.

“It’s just being more aware of who we’re playing against, because obviously Tazer is one of the best two-way centermen, so he’s going to get a lot of top lines,” Schmaltz said. “Playing against those lines, I’ve gotta make sure, especially late in shifts, that I’m not trying to do too much and that I’m making them go 200 feet. Obviously there’s a lot of talent on the lines we’re playing against.”

Schmaltz has one goal and two assists 14 games so far, a far cry from the pace he set as a sophomore at North Dakota last season, when he had 46 points in 37 games. Making the jump from college straight to the NHL has been an adjustment. And while he’s hardly looked out of place, and has shown plenty of flashes of elite skill and creativity, nearly every young player has to recalibrate his scoring expectations at the NHL level.

“Obviously the points are nice, but I think [the coaches] notice more than just the scoreboard,” he said. “The small, little details that don’t show up on the scoresheet are just as important. I’m just focused on that and the rest should take care of itself.”

NOTES: Artem Anisimov (upper-body injury) will not play Friday night, but Quenneville said there’s a “good chance” he can play Sunday against Montreal. Vinnie Hinostroza returns to the lineup as the fourth-line center.


Twitter: @marklazerus

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