Brandon Pirri has seen his minutes drop considerably since he was bumped down to the third line to make room for the returning Michal Handzus in Edmonton on Nov. 25. Pirri played 13 minutes in that game, 11 in Calgary, 10 in Dallas and just seven in Phoenix to close out the circus trip.
Pirri, a gifted offensive talent who’s still trying to develop an NHL-caliber two-way game, might seem like a poor fit for the third line — traditionally a checking line. But Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville doesn’t see that unit — with Pirri centering Kris Versteeg and Andrew Shaw — as a checking line. With the surging fourth line of Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith earning more minutes against opponents’ top guys, Quenneville feels he essentially has three scoring lines.
“I don’t know if it’s a checking line; I don’t know if that’s how that line would be described,” Quenneville said after Monday’s practice at Johnny’s IceHouse West. “We expect everybody to play offense, certainly, when it’s time. And to play well without the puck and try to get it back as quickly as possible. It’s not like that is a defined role, him being a checker in that role. No matter what line he’s on, we know what he’s capable of. We want him to progress defensively — offensively, we know he’s going to be fine.”
Shaw thinks Pirri’s going to be fine in the new role, which could last until Bryan Bickell’s eventual return from a leg injury.
“He’s adapted pretty well,” Shaw said. “He plays good defensively. We work together out there as good as we can. We’ve got three guys that can take draws, too, so we’ve been good that way.”
A star for Keith
Duncan Keith, who had six assists in four games this past week, was named the NHL’s third star of the week, behind Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin and Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall. Keith leads all NHL defensemen with 23 assists, and has at least a point in 17 of his last 20 games. He and defensive partner Brent Seabrook were both an NHL-best plus-15 in November.
Quenneville said Keith’s playing even better than he did in the 2009-10 season, in which he won the Norris Trophy as the league’s top blue-liner.
“I’m going to say yeah, he’s progressed,” Quenneville said. “He’s at a different level right now. I know he had an outstanding year that year. [This year] he got off to an OK start, but his last stretch of games here has been terrific. You get better with age, and we like the progress both defensively and offensively. He’s really playing well.”
Bickell was seen walking around Johnny’s without a noticeable limp, but Quenneville said he’s “still a little bit away from jumping on the ice.” … Corey Crawford will start in goal Tuesday against the Dallas Stars, though Quenneville said Antti Raanta will get some chances with the Hawks having back-to-back sets of three games in four days coming up.