This is the way things are going for the Blackhawks these days: the one line that doesn’t need a boost is getting one.
Center Marcus Kruger, out since Dec. 17 with a dislocated wrist, returned to the fourth line in practice Friday in preparation for Saturday night’s game against the Flames in Calgary — flanked by Andrew Desjardins and Andrew Show is a reprise of the fourth-line combination that was particularly effective in the playoffs last season.
It was an obvious move, but also breaks up a line that already was playing well — arguably as potent as any line the past two games as the Hawks continue to crawl toward the playoffs. Richard Panik and Andrew Shaw each scored goals against the Minnesota Wild on Sunday and the Dallas Stars on Tuesday. Desjardins had one assist in each game. The three fourth-line players combined for 10 shots against the Wild and eight against the Stars.
Panik was rewarded with a spot on the third line with center Teuvo Teravainen and winger Tomas Fleischmann. That apparently leaves Dale Weise as the odd-man out for now. But the return of Kruger is the key move. “Unbelievable,” Desjardins said when asked about Kruger after practice Friday. “I could just tell out there today, even in practice, how positionally sound he is. He’s always underneath the puck, as you need a centerman to be. Just great spots, great plays. He’s a good player.”
Quenneville is eager to re-establish the depth at center, with Jonathan Toews, Artem Anisimov and Teuvo Teravainen and Kruger. The 25-year-old veteran of two Stanley Cup championship teams has missed 41 games since he suffered the dislocated wrist on Dec. 17 against the Edmonton Oilers. And his proficiency on the penalty kill and at the faceoff circle has been missed. The Hawks’ penalty kill rate was 82.4 percent (75-of-91) before he was injured. It is 76.0 percent (92-of-121) with Kruger out.
“Responsibility wise, energy wise, [that line] can really be effective for us,” Quenneville said. “And [the penalty kill], that’s his bread-and-butter, so hopefully he can help us in that regard. It’s definitely been a sore spot for us. We know the importance that can bring to your team.
“But he plays the right way. And we can be better in the face-off circle. So there are a lot of little intangibles that he adds for our team. We’re looking forward to him being a part of it again.”
With the Hawks (42-25-7, 91 points) mired in a slump in which they have lost six of their last seven games and are only two points ahead of the Nashville Predators for the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference playoffs, Quenneville is hoping the fourth-line chemistry with Desjardins, Kruger and Shaw can provide a spark for the struggling top two lines — particularly in the key area of puck possession, a Hawks’ staple that has been noticeably lacking in the recent slump.
“There’s a lot of puck support [with that fourth-line combination]. There’s a lot of tenacity in the puck area,” Quenneville said. “They want to keep and hang onto the puck. They’re good reading off one another.
“Part of our team game has gotten away from puck support and keeping it — protecting it and getting offensive zone time. A lot of times they start in our end and [end up] in the other team’s end. We haven’t had big sequences in our games and in our season where that’s been the case and hopefully they can lead us in that area.”
Kruger, Desjardins and Shaw are well-established grinders in the NHL. Kruger said their versatility helps make the combination effective.
“We try to work hard, all of us,” Kruger said. “We’ve all played a little bit of center in the past, too. We can fill positions. If someone is out of position, someone else can fill in. That just gives us more flexibility and more confidence. They’re two good players, too. So it’s a lot of fun to play with them.”
Said Desjardins: “We’re pretty comfortable with each other. We joke around. We’re talking about plays, even in practice — we talk about little things to make us better. So there’s that communication, that comfort. It might just be that simple.”
Kruger, who returned to practice on March 13, is ready to go. He said he will not be inhibited because of the injury or the layoff.
“Everyone in the league is so good, I’m going to go all out,” Kruger said. “[I’m] ready to do everything I can. There’s no such thing as easing into it. You’ve got to go all out. Otherwise, you’re not going to be effective out there.”