From no-look passes to responsible defense, chemistry counts for Hawks

SHARE From no-look passes to responsible defense, chemistry counts for Hawks
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Patrick Kane and Nick Schmaltz celebrate Schmaltz’s goal against the Jets during the first period Thursday in Winnipeg, Manitoba. | John Woods/The Canadian Press via AP

Nick Schmaltz already was cutting across the slot in search of a rebound when Connor Murphy was still in his backswing, and Patrick Kane already was sliding over for a backdoor look at the bottom of the right circle while three Jets converged on the crease.

When Schmaltz got to the loose puck, he didn’t even bother looking over his shoulder. He wheeled and fired a no-look pass across the slot that landed right on Kane’s tape for an easy goal.

No, Schmaltz didn’t know Kane was there. But he had a hunch he would be.

‘‘I know he always hangs out over there; he’s always on that right side of the ice,’’ Schmaltz said. ‘‘Kind of an instinct play and kind of got lucky it found his tape, and he made a great shot. It was a lucky play, but sometimes you’re just throwing it to an area and hoping he’s there.’’

That’s what hockey players talk about when they mention ‘‘chemistry’’ with a linemate, an experiential knowledge of where a player likes to be and a sixth sense of when he’s going to be there.

Some of it comes naturally. More often than not, however, it comes with experience, repetition and a whole lot of talking — on the ice during practices, on the bench during games and in the dressing room.

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‘‘That’s stuff we try to work on and talk about, whether it’s open-side plays or coming behind the net and finding that guy on the short side or whatever it is,’’ Kane said. ‘‘We’re talking about certain things all the time, so it’s nice to see one connect.’’

Chemistry is why Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who haven’t played together much for three years, always can slip right back into it. For example, Seabrook knows where Keith likes to receive a defenseman-to-defenseman pass and that he likes to circle back and try again if a breakout or zone entry looks off-kilter. It’s why the Hawks brought back Brandon Saad — to recapture that magic he had with Jonathan Toews. It’s why coach Joel Quenneville doesn’t mess with his lineup after a victory.

Chemistry isn’t only about highlight-reel goals, either. One of the few constants this season has been the fourth line of Lance Bouma, Tommy Wingels and John Hayden. And the chemistry they’ve developed by playing so much together helps them at both ends of the rink. When the opponent is racing down the ice in transition or cycling in the offensive zone, there’s no time to peek over your shoulder and see where your linemates are. You have to trust them.

‘‘It’s a game out there, and you’re not able to be exactly where you want to be at all times,’’ Wingels said. ‘‘Communication certainly helps, and the chemistry you build up when you play with the same guys over and over is a really big part of that.’’

Alex DeBrincat had some instant chemistry with Saad and Toews when he first was bumped up to the top line, but Wingels cautioned that instant chemistry doesn’t last long. It has to be worked on. So Toews has stayed in DeBrincat’s ear, helping him know where to be and when to be there.

Because structure is important, but a little schoolyard flair is always more fun.

‘‘You make a lot of good plays like that when you know where they’re going to be and where they like to be, so it’s a lot easier,’’ DeBrincat said. ‘‘That’s built up over time.’’

Plays such as Schmaltz’s to Kane are still rare and take an exceptional level of vision, skill and hockey sense. But even in the more mundane

moments, chemistry counts.

‘‘This game’s fast,’’ Wingels said. ‘‘And the faster you play it, when you don’t have to look to know where your teammates are, the more success you’re going to have.’’

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com


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