Switch to right-side defense has sparked Slater Koekkoek’s excellent recent stretch

Playing on the right side for the first time in his career, Koekkoek’s pairing with Olli Maatta has been excellent in recent games.

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Slater Koekkoek has excelled in a third-pairing role for the Blackhawks in recent weeks.

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The Blackhawks’ preseason game against the Red Wings on Sept. 17 was as irrelevant as every other preseason game.

But for Slater Koekkoek, it marked what might turn out to be a watershed moment in his career: It was the first time he played right-side defense.

“The coaches came up to me before the preseason [game] and said, ‘We know you’ve never really played the right side, we’re just going to test you in case something happens during the season,’ ” Koekkoek said Sunday, thinking back. “So I was happy to have that experience.”

Koekkoek, who plays left-handed, manned the right side that night next to short-lived Philip Holm. The pairing wasn’t exactly a smash hit in the Hawks’ 5-3 loss. Koekkoek suffered a 20-11 shot-attempt deficit and 8-4 scoring-chance deficit and didn’t register a point.

Yet, months later, that first toe-dip into right-side defense has given way to a multiweek stint on the right side — during the Hawks’ hottest stretch of the season — and Koekkoek’s most impressive results and most consistent playing time in a year.

“That was the only experience I had, and now to be there and feel super comfortable . . . [it’s] funny,” he said.

After playing in just 16 of the Hawks’ first 44 games, and just two of 14 between Dec. 10 and Jan. 7, Koekkoek has been in the lineup for six consecutive games — and five straight wins — and averaged a sizable 17 minutes, 36 seconds of ice time in them.

It’s because of his (at least temporary) switch to the right side that Koekkoek has been able to bump Dennis Gilbert from the Hawks’ lineup and form a surprisingly dominant pair with left-handed Olli Maatta, who also struggled somewhat in December.

While alongside Maatta in the last six games, Koekkoek (at five-on-five) has enjoyed a 59.9 percent shot-attempt ratio and 66.0 percent scoring-chance ratio, two off-the-charts percentages.

“This latest opportunity that he’s had, he’s found another level to his performance and he’s made it impossible for us to take him out,” coach Jeremy Colliton said Sunday. “Him and Maatta, since they’ve been reinserted, they’ve been great and really added some depth to our group and [become] a big part of why we’re having success lately.”

Koekkoek even recorded a three-game points streak, with assists in all three games of the Hawks’ Eastern Canada road swing, perhaps not-so-coincidentally jump-started by the presence of “a ton of Koekkoeks” in his hometown of Ottawa.

Making this recent success even more notable is that Koekkoek seemed like an odd man out for the entire first half of the season. Yet it only took a switch to his off side — with just one preseason game of experience — and a well-suited “D” pairing to bring out his untapped stability.

“[I] love the way that Olli and I are moving on the ice,” he said. “Whether it be neutral-zone regroup or in the defensive zone, we’re moving well together, and that’s what it takes.”

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