Blackhawks struggling to adapt in Artem Anisimov’s absence

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Artem Anisimov matched his career high with 22 goals before being injured. (Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH — Artem Anisi-mov doesn’t have Patrick Kane’s hands, or Artemi Panarin’s shot, or Duncan Keith’s speed, or Marian Hossa’s strength, or Jonathan Toews’ tenacity. But he’s skilled. He does have a good shot. He can be quick. He’s strong on the puck. He’s tenacious at the net.

Anisimov might not be “the best” at anything on the Blackhawks roster, so he doesn’t garner the attention his higher-profile teammates do. But he’s good at just about everything. And his absence is proving just how valuable he is.

Anisimov’s leg injury, suffered March 14 in Montreal, has had a ripple effect throughout the lineup. Remove that linchpin from the second-line center spot, and all of a sudden the four-line rotation that carried the Hawks to 12 wins in 13 games in February and early March falls apart. Since Anisimov was hurt, Nick Schmaltz, who struggled mightily on face-offs, got a crack at his spot. So did Ryan Hartman, who never had played center at the professional level. Now it’s Tanner Kero, who fared well in his debut there Monday night in Tampa, Florida, but doesn’t fit the mold to play between two supremely gifted wingers such as Panarin and Kane.

When it was Schmaltz in that spot, the formerly red-hot top line suffered. When it was Hartman, the bottom six took a hit. And now that it’s Kero, the fourth line is weakened, with Andrew Desjardins moving to center, a spot he hasn’t played much in since coming to the Hawks. Every game, coach Joel Quenneville is moving guys around, trying to find the consistency he had when Anisimov was healthy.

“He’s a big key to our team,” Kero said. “So it’s always tough when guys like that are out for a bit. But others have to step up. Guys have been up and down in the lineup, in and out of different positions all year. So everyone’s kind of used to that. You’ve got to be versatile and able to play whatever role they want you to be in, because situations like this come up.”

After winning in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, the Hawks have been erratic and error-prone in a messy 2-1-2 stretch. It’s no coincidence.

“When you lose a guy of his nature, when you use him in so many different situations, maybe the first three, four, five games, you can get away with his absence,” Quenneville said. “But as we’ve gone along here, you notice his value to your team. You’re definitely looking for somebody to fill that need.”

Shuffling his forwards is nothing new for Quenneville; he has done it throughout his coaching career and was constantly tinkering through the first four months of the season as he integrated so many new faces into the lineup. But the Hawks didn’t hit their stride until February, when he finally settled on a top nine, with some rotation on the fourth line.

Anisimov is expected to be back in time for the playoffs, but if he doesn’t get a game or two in before the end of the regular season, it’s impossible to know what to expect from him in terms of his timing and conditioning. Not everybody can step right in and make a huge impact off a lengthy absence, like Kane did after breaking his clavicle in February 2015. So these last six games, starting with Wednesday’s showdown with the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, will continue to be a test of the Hawks’ depth, and of whatever contingency plan they can come up with.

“We could use him, no doubt,” Kane said. “He’s a huge part of our team and fits in that second center role perfectly, a position we were looking for for a long time. . . . There’s no doubt we miss him, and hopefully he’ll heal fast and we’ll get him back as soon as possible.”

NOTE: Coach Joel Quenneville said Ryan Hartman likely will return to the lineup Wednesday.

Corey Crawford starts in goal.

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