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Mark McNeill on making his NHL debut: ‘A dream come true’

RALEIGH, N.C. — Mark McNeill had just fallen asleep on the couch while watching television when he got the call he had waited for his whole life.

“Boy, that was exciting,” McNeill said.

More than four years after the Blackhawks made him a first-round pick in the 2011 draft, McNeill finally made his NHL debut on Tuesday, filling in for newly acquired Jiri Sekac, who stayed home with an illness. McNeill slotted in on the fourth line, alongside Richard Panik and Dennis Rasmussen — a trio of players who began the year in the American Hockey League.

McNeill has patiently waited his turn for years, watching countless other players from Rockford get a shot in the NHL ahead of him — 10 of them this season alone. Injuries have impeded his progress, but he had 23 goals and 21 assists last season, and had nine goals and 10 assists in 29 games with the IceHogs this season.

“That’s part of it, though — working towards getting your opportunity,” he said. “It’s going to be a dream come true. It’s something you think about growing up as a kid, and that day is finally here.”

McNeill’s mom, dad, brother and sister “flew through the night” to get to Raleigh in time for his NHL debut. Joel Quenneville’s message to McNeill was the same he gives every first-timer — play your game, and keep things simple. Fighting nerves is just part of it.

“I think it’s going to help if I get out there and throw the body around early, and get those nerves out of the way early,” McNeill said.

Earning his bread
Artemi Panarin is signed through next year at just an $825,000 cap hit (plus bonuses). But Hawks GM Stan Bowman made it clear the team intends to sign him to an extension over the summer.

“I think that’s fair to say,” he said with a laugh. “I think Patrick Kane would be pretty upset if we decided not to bring Panarin back.”

Kris Versteeg has been a top-liner for the Hurricanes this season, and his two goals on Sunday gave him 10 goals and 20 assists through 49 games. He’s possibly going to be trade bait yet again as the Feb. 29 deadline approaches — it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Hawks could reacquire him, given his $2.2-million cap hit and ability to play left wing — but Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said Versteeg’s infectious personality has helped the team off the ice, too.

“He’s a pretty good singer and dancer,” Peters said.

Patrick Kane, one of Versteeg’s closest friends in hockey, begged to differ.

“I think he thinks he is, and he portrays that confidence,” Kane said with a laugh. “Anytime you’re confident, it might come across good. But we all know how real bad he is.”

On the defensive
The Hawks’ lineup really took shape once Quenneville put Teuvo Teravainen alongside Andrew Desjardins and Phil Danault on the third line. Teravainen is known for his offensive skill, but it’s his defensive awareness that makes him so valuable.

“He’s always been reliable defensively, positionally aware,” Quenneville said. “His thought process without the puck has always been in the right spot.” 

TV time
Tuesday night was Carolina’s first and only game on either NBCSN or NBC this season. It was the Hawks’ 11th of 21 such games.

Kruger update
Hawks general manager Stan Bowman said that Marcus Kruger’s rehab from wrist surgery was on schedule, and that he’s expected to be back around the start of the playoffs

“I don’t expect him back prior to that, but all indications are right now he’s on schedule,” Bowman said.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus