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Blackhawks’ Vinnie Hinostroza sheds ‘tweener’ label with consistent production

Only three years ago at this time, Vinnie Hinostroza was a sophomore at Notre Dame. So he not only bristles at the idea that he has been labeled a tweener — a player who’s too good for the American Hockey League and not quite good enough for the NHL — he pretty much laughs at it.

“I’m still on my entry-level [contract],” Hinostroza said. “I think it’s kind of early to say if you’re a tweener or whatever. It’s my third-year pro. I knew I’d be here at some point.”

Thing is, Hinostroza was here for seven games in his first year as a pro. Then 49 games last season. That’s awfully quick for a sixth-round draft pick. Maybe that’s why he was doubted more than most — he went through those typical growing pains on a much bigger stage.

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Vinnie Hinostroza celebrates a first-period goal in Detroit on Jan. 25. (Getty Images)

Regardless, Hinostroza has shed that tweener label in a hurry since being recalled from Rockford in early December. In 23 games, he has six goals and eight assists. That’s tied with Jonathan Toews for third-most among Blackhawks in that span — in about six fewer minutes of ice time per game than Toews. Hinostroza entered Tuesday with three goals in his last four games.

And with 80 career games (regular season and playoffs) under his belt, Hinostroza officially becomes waiver-eligible, meaning the Hawks would have to risk losing him in order to demote him.

In other words, Hinostroza is an NHL player now, probably for good.

“He’s just so great at not only using his speed but getting into traffic areas and coming up with pucks,” Toews said. “He’s getting more and more confident making plays. It was nice to see him get one on the power play the last game, and he seems to create a ton regardless of who he’s out there with.”

That has been one of the more impressive aspects of Hinostroza’s strong play this season. He scored on a line with Patrick Sharp and Ryan Hartman, with Toews and Brandon Saad, with Patrick Kane and Nick Schmaltz, with David Kampf and Tomas Jurco and on the power play. Regardless of the role he’s in, Hinostroza has been productive.

The 23-year-old Bartlett product came into this season talking about confidence and mental focus, eager to prove he was more than just a prospect, more than just a tweener. After failing to make the team out of camp, he has backed up the talk.

“I believed in myself and came here, and I knew what I was able to do,” Hinostroza said. “And I’m getting opportunities to prove that every night. So anytime you produce points, it feels good. I wish I could be doing this and we could be winning right now, though, so hopefully we can turn it around and get on a hot streak.”

Sharp returns

Sharp was back in the lineup after four straight healthy scratches — something he never has endured before in his career.

“It’s been a new experience,” he said. “But there’s more important things to talk about right now. I’m focused on getting back in and playing as well as I can.”

Sharp skated on an intriguing fourth line with Saad and Hartman.

“Two great players,” he said. “If we can manage to put something together that can help the team, that’s awesome.”

Status Crow

Corey Crawford skated for the fourth straight day Tuesday, but Joel Quenne-ville said there’s still no timetable for his return.

“Status quo,” he said.

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@MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com