Tyson Barrie took the puck from behind his own net, gathered up a head of steam and barreled toward the neutral zone. Blackhawks wingers Andreas Martinsen and Brandon Saad backed off and turned toward the neutral zone, a smart and safe move.
Nick Schmaltz attacked.
Schmaltz darted across the blue line and into the Avalanche’s zone, steering Barrie toward the boards. He then lunged forward, reached out with his left hand and swatted the puck right off Barrie’s stick — without slashing or tripping him. Schmaltz got the puck, a scoring chance and a power play out of it, as Barrie desperately hacked Schmaltz on the right knee as he raced in on goal.
It looked like a Marian Hossa play. And that’s no coincidence.
“[Hossa is] probably one of the best that’s ever done it,” Schmaltz said. “You definitely learn from him. He’s got that quick stick, and he’s so strong. So if you can do anything the way that guy did it, you’re doing something right. He’s the perfect two-way player, and a lot of guys want to play like that.”
Schmaltz has been one of the biggest bright spots in an otherwise-disastrous season for the Hawks. The sophomore center has 21 goals and 28 assists in 72 games and has been productive with and without Patrick Kane on his line. But while his offense is what stands out the most, his defense is what makes him a true No. 1 center in the making.
He’s third in the league in takeaways — a squirrelly stat that’s inconsistently recorded from rink to rink, but an important one, nonetheless — with 82. He trails only Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Carolina’s Jeff Skinner. And like Hossa before him, Schmaltz is turning the takeaway into an art form. Whether it’s attacking a guy like Barrie head-on or sneaking up behind a guy on the backcheck, Schmaltz is quite the thief.
“If you watched Hossa, he would have that powerful stride behind a guy, and he wouldn’t tap him or let him know he was there for the longest time,” Kane said. “Then at the last second, he’d take the puck. You see that with Schmaltz a lot, too, where he just follows a guy and strips him at the last second.”
There are two general pickpocketing moves Schmaltz uses. One is that big left-handed sweep he used on Barrie, which can work from ahead or from behind. The other is a well-timed stick-lift, usually from behind.
Speed, of course, is key to such a skill, and there are very few skaters in the league that Schmaltz can’t track down from behind. But deception is important, too.
“Sometimes you fake like you’re not really going to come from behind, then you turn on the jets and use a long reach to strip him from behind,” Schmaltz said. “It’s a good thing to be good at. And back-pressure is always huge, even if you don’t take it away. Sometimes, you just force him to get rid of it or just make him feel that pressure. It’s a lot harder when you’ve got a guy on your back chasing you down.”
Schmaltz showed flashes of that defensive prowess as a rookie, including a memorable third period in Vancouver in which he was backchecking with abandon, turning steals into odd-man rushes. But as an established second-year pro, he’s more confident in his abilities and more willing to make the bold play.
“All of a sudden, he turns defense into offense,” coach Joel Quenne-ville said. “It’s a great asset.”
Hossa frequently said he got more pleasure out of picking a guy’s pocket than scoring a goal. Schmaltz understands the feeling.
“It’s fun when a guy’s not expecting it,” he said. “You get ticked off when someone does it to you, so it’s a lot of fun doing it to other guys.”
NOTE: As first reported Saturday, top prospect Dylan Sikura signed a two-year entry-level deal with the Hawks and should be in the lineup Thursday. He’ll wear No. 95. The Hawks recalled forward Victor Ejdsell, acquired from the Predators in the Ryan Hartman trade, from Rockford. He’ll wear No. 14.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.