You don’t have to be fluent in Q-speak to know that Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville wasn’t impressed with Richard Panik’s debut as a replacement for Marian Hossa against the Maple Leafs on Monday night.
“What did you think of Panik tonight?”
“He was OK.”
“Do you think you’ll keep that line together for a little while?
Most of the time that means somebody else will get a shot at replacing Hossa — who is out at least two weeks with a lower-body injury — on the Hawks’ top line when the Hawks face the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night. A Hossa absence is a merry-go-round waiting to happen, because nobody on the Hawks can replicate the unique contribution Hossa provides the Hawks — the two-way game, the hustle, grit, puck-control ability, instinct and veteran savvy that makes Hossa invaluable even as his offensive game has diminished at 37.
Panik isn’t the first player to suffer the indignity of not being Marian Hossa. In 2011, Jeremy Morin was 19 when he was called up after a Hossa injury, played in eight games and was sent back to Rockford. In 2013, Daniel Carcillo lasted all of three shifts as Hossa’s replacement with Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad before Quenneville double-shifted Patrick Kane and eventually turned to Michael Frolik.
“I don’t see how you can replace a guy like Hossa just calling up one person or laying it all on one guy’s shoulders,” Hawks forward Patrick Kane said. “We’ll try to pick up the slack as a team.
“But Hoss, you look at what he does for our team — the penalty kill, the power play. He’s probably our best two-way forward. It’s a hole that’s not going to be easy to fill and we’ll need everyone to step up and contribute.”
The Hawks have done that in impressive fashion throughout their seven-year run as Stanley Cup contenders. In 2010-11, they went 4-2-1 without Kane and Hossa. In 2011-12, they went 13-5-4 when Toews missed 22 games with a concussion. Late in the 2013-14 season, they were struggling without Kane — losing four of five games — when Toews also suffered an injury on the Brooks Orpik hit against the Penguins. Without both Kane and Toews, the Hawks won four straight games in April to solidify a playoff spot.
And last season, the Hawks went 7-1-0 behind Antti Raanta (4-0) and Scott Darling (3-1) when goalie Corey Crawford missed eight games with a foot injury. In February, Kane was leading the NHL in scoring when he suffered a broken clavicle and was declared out for the remainder of the regular season. The Hawks won seven of their first nine games without Kane and were 12-4-1 without him before coasting to the finish.
How do they do it?
“The fact that we do have that depth at all positions always helps,” Toews said. “I think given that situation, guys recognize that we all have to improve our play a little bit and make up for it.
“And [when] you have young guys that are able to step up and get excited about getting a little more ice time, and showing what they can do. [With] those three factors, we can find ways to be better without guys that mean a lot to our locker room. It’s not always easy, but we’ve got to find ways to do it.”
The Hawks caught a break with the timing of Hossa’s injury. They play just five games in the expected two-week span of his injury (had he suffered the injury in January he would have missed nine games). And the time off can’t hurt the 37-year-old Hossa, who doesn’t need to play 82 games as he did last season.
Surviving his injury is almost a given. But the Hawks need a fresh, rejuvenated Hossa in the playoffs. With 10 goals and 28 points in 54 games, Hossa is on a pace for career-lows in both categories. His 6.1 shooting percentage is less than half his career average coming into this season (12.8).
There’s little doubt a rested Hossa is a better Hossa. He had as many shot attempts (nine) in the first game after the six-day All-Star break as he had in five games prior to the break — the end of a stretch of 14 games in 24 days.
“I’ve been saying all year this year – even though he’s not scoring at the rate that he expects – he still means a ton to this team. We know that,” Toews said. “I get a lot of praise of being a good two-way forward, a good defensive center man that can play offense as well. But I never forget for a second what Hoss brings to our line and how much of a help he is in that. He’s usually the first guy back on the backcheck. He never seems to run out of energy. He always has that extra jump to get back there and help our D-men out. He’s out there making things easier on everyone out there.”
Hossa doesn’t have to score for the Hawks to win, but it sure helps — especially in the playoffs, where the Hawks are 16-0 when Hossa scores a goal. Unfortunately, he has withered in the postseason the past three years — without a goal in the Hawks’ final series in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Hossa arguably has been the Hawks’ most valuable player in the playoffs over the entire six-year run as Cup contenders. The Hawks have survived without Duncan Keith (1-0), Brent Seabrook (3-0) and Crawford (2-1) in the playoffs. But without Hossa, they are 1-4 — including the 2012 first-round loss to the Coyotes when Hossa missed most of the final four games after getting drilled by the dastardly Raffi Torres.
He not only has to be healthy. He has to be better. Two weeks off — or more — can only help in that pursuit.