With his team skidding and its playoff hopes shrinking, Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton went back to the lab to experiment with his lines during the three-day break after a confounding California trip.
It wasn’t as extreme as blowing the whole thing up, but the makeover is significant as the Hawks take one last swing at saving a season that has often flickered but has yet to go fully dark.
He loaded up with the “nuclear” line of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews when the team slumped in January but broke it apart Wednesday morning in favor of putting Kane, Toews and Alex DeBrincat on separate lines so the Hawks have one top scorer on the ice the majority of the game.
“We’re looking for more positive shifts throughout the lineup,” Colliton said. “We’d like to spread the ice time around a little more, spread the burden of playing against top lines a little more.”
The Hawks’ nosedive the last two weeks means there’s no such thing as a bad idea. They sit nine points out of the playoffs with 16 games left, the next being a home game Thursday against the Sabres.
They didn’t get a goal from Kane, Toews or DeBrincat — a trio that has accounted for 48 percent of their scoring — the last two games, and Colliton believes fatigue was a factor. For Kane and Toews, it’s not simply the minutes. It’s having to face the opponent’s best line whenever they’re together.
Injuries forced Colliton to shuffle, as well. Drake Caggiula remains out with a concussion, and his absence is underscoring how valuable he was on the Kane-Toews line. He went down a week ago and has yet to skate.
Then there’s the return of center David Kampf, who was sidelined a month by a foot injury. He practiced Wednesday for the first time, and Colliton hinted that he’ll play against Buffalo.
Colliton is navigating a rocky situation in net, too, where Corey Crawford recently returned from a long absence, Cam Ward is out at least a week with a knee injury and rookie Collin Delia rejoined the team from Rockford.
With no back-to-back games the next two weeks, the Hawks are likely to lean on Crawford. He had mixed results in his first two games back from a concussion.
“Hopefully, I can pick it up at the top of my game pretty quick,” he said. “That’d be nice. We’ll see. It’s just fun to be out there playing again, [but] we’re also chasing right now, so points are really important.”
Colliton put Toews with Brandon Saad and John Hayden; Kane skated with Artem Anisimov and Dominik Kahun.
He left DeBrincat with Dylan Strome, and upstart Brendan Perlini joined them after a two-goal game against the Kings and overall improvement. Kampf would anchor a fourth line with Chris Kunitz and Marcus Kruger.
Colliton called it “a test run” for the new lines, so there’s no certainty he’ll stay with them, but he thinks it could jump-start Kane and Toews.
“We need them to produce,” he said. “When they don’t, it’s hard for us to win.”
Those two have logged around 1,000 games, including playoffs, and will never admit to being tired. They’re in their 12th season, though, and Kane is second among NHL forwards in average ice time and Toews 14th.
The Hawks’ turnaround coincided with Kane’s resurgence. He put up 60 points during a 31-game span in which the team went 17-10-4 and held a brief claim on the second wild card.
In their back-to-back losses on the West Coast, the Hawks’ only goals came from Perlini and Strome and defensemen Connor Murphy and Erik Gustafsson. Those were helpful, but this team is built around the firepower of its big three.
“We’re getting enough from the other lines,” Kane said. “So I think at this point you count on your top guys to come through in those big moments.”