Shorthanded, deep in his own end along the boards, and with a pair of Dallas forwards converging on him, Niklas Hjalmarsson had a split second to decide whether to be safe or to be aggressive, whether to simply clear the puck, or to take a chance and make a play.
Artem Anisimov already had decided.
Anisimov, already heading up ice, looked over his right shoulder and briefly made eye contact with Hjalmarsson, who lobbed the puck toward center ice at Anisimov’s feet. Anisimov beat Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski to the bouncing puck, deftly chipped it ahead to himself, and twice fended off the stick of defenseman John Klingberg before putting the puck past goaltender Kari Lehtonen and crashing jubilantly into the end boards.
It was a spectacular effort by Anisimov, who never hesitated. He rarely does on the penalty kill, frequently generating offensive zone time and occasional scoring chances with daring decision-making. He has six shorthanded shots on the season, and has scored on three of them — a sign of how smart he is at picking his spots. Like the more touted Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews, who combined for another shorthanded goal in Saturday’s 5-1 rout of Dallas, Anisimov is an expert penalty killer, but still a threat to score when down a man.
“If we have a chance to score, go,” Anisimov said of his thought process. “The first thing is to play responsible in our end. But if I have a chance to go, I just read the game and [you can get] great chances.”
All it takes is one bobble at the blue line, one ill-timed line change, one out-of-position point man. The Hawks have seven shorthanded goals this season, including three in their last two games. Toews and Anisimov each have three, and Hossa — the active NHL leader in shorties with 31 — has the other.
“You kind of have to have some luck, too,” Hjalmarsson said. “You can have your chances if they have a couple guys too high, and maybe get an odd-man break. But I can’t really explain why we’ve scored so many of them lately.”
Well, part of it is the Hawks are giving themselves plenty of opportunities, with a disconcerting 12 penalties over the past two games. But the other part is Anisimov, who has been such a revelation for the Hawks this season. Just as he’s helped give the Hawks a formidable second line behind the Toews-Hossa grouping, he’s given the Hawks a dangerous second penalty-killing unit behind the Toews-Hossa duo, combining the injured Marcus Kruger’s knack for blocking shots and getting clears with Toews and Hossa’s ability to flip the ice in an instant.
Anisimov now has 18 goals this season, just four shy of his career high set in 2013-14 with Columbus, and a whopping 11 more than he had last season.
“I shouldn’t say [it’s] a surprise, I knew he was a good player,” Hjalmarsson said. “But the way he’s been playing for us so far has been great to see, especially how that whole [second] line is balanced. He’s the perfect player to play with those two guys, [Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin]. Big body, responsible with the puck, and at the same time, he’s a skilled player that can play a skilled game with those two guys. It’s fun to be on the ice with those three guys, and he’s been a perfect match for us.”
Anisimov was brought in to be the long-awaited stabilizing force at second-line center, a big, reliable, defensively responsible center. But he’s proven to be more than that — yet another potent weapon in the Hawks’ arsenal, whether it’s at even strength, on the power play, or yes, even shorthanded.
“He’s been a very big part of our team this year,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “He’s been terrific in a lot of ways.”