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Six forwards battling for two open spots in postseason lineup

Jordin Tootoo (center) celebrates his goal with Dennis Rasmussen and John Hayden on Sunday against Boston. (AP Photo)

Despite his tinkering tendencies, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville much rather would take a hands-off approach to his postseason lineup.

In his ideal world, he would find the right 12 forwards and the right six defensemen, and their play would force him to leave them alone. No midgame line-juggling. No shuttling players in and out of the lineup from game to game.

That, of course, rarely happens. Even during the Hawks’ three Stanley Cup runs, Quenneville constantly moved things around. Just a few of the many examples include moving Dustin Byfuglien from forward to defense to forward again in 2010, putting Bryan Bickell on the top line in 2013 and scratching Antoine Vermette in the Western Conference final in 2015.

The lineup this spring seems pretty well established, with 10 forwards and six defensemen locked in. The top three lines (assuming Artem Anisimov returns for the postseason, as expected) and all three defensive pairings are pretty much settled.

But there’s still a fierce competition for the final two spots in the lineup, with six players — Andrew Desjardins, John Hayden, Vinnie Hinostroza, Tomas Jurco, Dennis Rasmussen and Jordin Tootoo — fighting for the two wing spots on the fourth line. And they have three regular-season games left in which to audition.

‘‘We’re wide-open as far as guys pushing and looking to take advantage of it here,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘Nothing’s set in stone.’’

Of those six players, each has strengths and weaknesses. Hayden has been impressive in his 10 games, giving the Hawks a big, physical body with some offensive punch. Desjardins and Rasmussen are versatile defenders who can take faceoffs and can take some of the penalty-killing burden off Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Anisimov. Tootoo brings gritty play and leadership, though his enforcer skills rarely come into play in the playoffs, when fighting all but disappears. Jurco and Hinostroza are more offensive-minded, with speed and skill to burn.

Quenneville has been high on Hayden since he came to the Hawks from Yale, and the rookie seems to have a leg up on the competition. He set up Tootoo’s goal Sunday against the Bruins with hard work along the boards and a nice centering pass from behind the net. In his first handful of games, Hayden also proved he could hang with Toews and Richard Panik on the top line, should the need arise.

‘‘He’s been fine, no matter where he’s played,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘He gives us a little physicality, play along the walls, size, net presence. That’s how he has to play, no matter who he’s playing with.’’

Hayden’s confidence is growing with each game.

‘‘It’s definitely nice getting a few games under my belt,’’ he said. ‘‘My linemates and the rest of the players have done a good job of helping me adjust to the pro game, and I think, as I play a few more games here, I’ll get more confident.”

None of the options for the fourth line has been terribly prolific in terms of scoring. But with six players on the roster with 20 goals and another (Ryan Hartman) with 18, depth scoring isn’t the Hawks’ biggest concern. Sound defense and versatility, with an occasional scoring chance thrown in, is all Quenneville is looking for.

And while he’s not afraid to shake up his lineup, he’s hoping he won’t have to.

‘‘Once we get the lineup set, we don’t like to make too many changes,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘Sometimes some guys make it tougher on you when you’re down the stretch here. We’ve changed a number of guys in the last little while, and everybody’s gotten their chance to prove where they belong or what the opportunity is ahead of them. We’ll make those decisions, but I don’t see making constant changes once the [playoffs] begin.’’

NOTE: Winger Artemi Panarin was named the NHL’s first star of the week. He had five goals and one assist in four games.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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