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Connor Murphy doing anything he can to stay in the Blackhawks’ lineup

Connor Murphy fights through a check by the Flyers' Sean Couturier on Sunday at the United Center. (Getty Images)

Connor Murphy chased down the puck in the corner and was about to rim it around the boards with a backhand. But with Montreal’s Max Pacioretty pressuring, Murphy hesitated for a split-second. That’s all it took for Pacioretty to jar the puck loose, Andrew Shaw to nudge it up the boards, Phil Danault to send it up to the point, and Joe Morrow to blast it past Corey Crawford.

Just like that, a close game was all but out of reach.


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Every defenseman makes that mistake at some point. Every defenseman will occasionally muff a clearing attempt, make an ill-advised pass through the middle, turn the wrong way while backpedaling. Every defenseman will see one of his mistakes end up in the back of his own net from time to time. And it will eat them up inside every time.

But it’s so much worse when you’re not an entrenched, established guy — when you know that one little mistake could cost you your spot in the lineup.

“That can creep into your game,” Murphy said. “It’s just being human. You’re always pretty hard on yourself, making mistakes and letting up goals. And a mistake like that late in the game is frustrating. And [being in and out of the lineup] does give you that little extra bit of stress after a game if something like that happens. You’ve just got to stick with the process and keep playing and know that mistakes are going to happen.”

It’s starting to get easier for Murphy to play free and easy, to not look over his shoulder for a vengeful Joel Quenneville after every little mistake. The ins and outs of the Hawks system are starting to become second nature, as early season over-thinking yields to midseason muscle memory.

But the fact is, Murphy’s grasp on a spot in the lineup is tenuous at best. Brought in to be Duncan Keith’s partner on the top pairing, Murphy was a healthy scratch in three of the first 12 games, and has found himself behind Jan Rutta, Brent Seabrook and now Cody Franson on the right-side pecking order.

So when Quenneville decided to put him on the left side ahead of Thursday’s game against the Flyers, Murphy happily took the assignment. Anything’s better than watching in street clothes.

“It’s definitely a different feel, but it’s still hockey,” he said.

Quenneville seems to be experimenting as much as anything. In Gustav Forsling’s absence the last three games (he’ll return in Philadelphia), Quenneville learned that Rutta can play both sides adequately. Now he wants to find out if Murphy can, too, to give him further options.

“He’s been fine,” Quenneville said. “He’s coming along here, getting more comfortable with how we have to play, what he needs to do to be effective. He’s getting more involved offensively and has more support on the attack. His gap’s been fine. We like to do things quick and fast, and he’s come a long way.”

The question is, will any of that muscle memory Murphy has finally built up be rendered useless by playing on the left side, which he’s never played? Will he chase pucks into the wrong corner? Will he struggle defending the wall on the backhand? Will he find himself twisting the wrong away while defending the rush?

Murphy doesn’t quite know what to expect, whether the change will be harder offensively or defensively.

“I don’t know, because I haven’t done it,” he said with a laugh.

Don’t mistake that for complaining, though. Murphy has faced all the early season frustrations with his usual good humor and understanding. He just wants to play, to stay in the lineup, and to make a difference — any way he can.

“That’s the name of the game — trying to keep playing and do what you can to help,” Murphy said. “If I had to play goalie to stay in the lineup, I would.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus