By the time the Blackhawks finish their first burst of warmups each night, a helter-skelter barrage of shots, there are dozens of pucks inside the net. And before the team can do its three-on-two line rushes, someone has to fish them all out and send them to the blue line.
Nobody wants the job. But winger Richard Panik took it out of pity.
‘‘[Captain Jonathan] Toews was doing it at the start of the year because [defenseman Erik] Gustafsson was the guy last year, and he’s in Rockford,’’ Panik said. ‘‘But I think he hated doing it. So when he asked me, I felt bad and said I’d do it. I wanted to help him out.’’
Well, Panik is helping Toews out in much bigger ways these days. He has emerged as a bona fide top-line winger on pace for the first 20-goal season of his career. He has 17 goals and 19 assists in 65 games, including six goals and eight assists in his last 11.
And he’s drawing some pretty lofty comparisons from Toews.
‘‘He can score in a lot of different ways,’’ Toews said. ‘‘And when he gets angry, [when] he gets worked up, he can bring that physical game, too.
‘‘These last handful of games, it seems like he’s protecting the puck really well. He’s kind of like [Marian] Hossa down there. He’s turning into that horse that can just carry a few guys on his back.’’
Panik isn’t the most colorful guy in the room, but a good way to catch him off-guard is to tell him Toews just compared him to his hero.
‘‘He’s my favorite player,’’ Panik said of Hossa, a fellow Slovak. ‘‘I feel so fortunate just to be on the same team as he is and watch how he prepares for a game. I don’t know, maybe we have a similar style. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s good to hear somebody’s comparing you to [Hossa]. It’s an honor.’’
Panik has shown flashes of brilliance before. He had 11 goals in his first NHL season, with the Maple Leafs in 2014-15, and started this season with six goals in the first six games. He’s a big, strong guy with surprisingly good hands. He just never has been able to put it all together consistently.
But the 13 games since he has been on the top line have been the best of his career. And the ripple effect has been critical. With Panik able to hang with Toews and Nick Schmaltz, it allows Hossa to play on the third line, balancing the Hawks’ offensive depth.
And while inconsistency has plagued Panik in his career — it’s a big reason the Leafs buried him in the minors and dealt him for Jeremy Morin — it’s starting to look as though this breakthrough is a permanent one.
‘‘Richard always had it in him,’’ Hossa said. ‘‘[He’s] powerful, a good handler, got some real good skill and can shoot the puck extremely well. When [he finds] the consistency, and it seems like he’s showing his best right now, he can have a really big impact for this team.’’
It’s what the Hawks envisioned when they traded for Panik and gave him a chance. And it’s what Panik envisioned, too, if someone ever gave him a chance.
‘‘I always knew I had the ability to be an NHL player,’’ he said. ‘‘But in Toronto, I played two minutes a night. There’s not much you can do. But if you have an opportunity and good linemates, the points will come. I think it’s happening right now.’’
NOTE: Defensemen Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya skated in optional practice Monday, and both are expected to play Thursday against the Ducks.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.