Blackhawks

Vinnie Hinostroza more a force than a fan in his second NHL season

The first time Vinnie Hinostroza settled in for a faceoff on the Blackhawks’ top line, fresh out of the Christmas break last season, he looked to his left and saw Jonathan Toews, three-time Stanley Cup champion, superstar and legend in the making.

Barely a year later, when Hinostroza again found himself on the top line, he looked to his left and saw Jonathan Toews, his buddy.

‘‘At this point in my career, I realize they’re just players,’’ Hinostroza said of linemates Toews and Brandon Saad. ‘‘They’re great guys, and I don’t really look at them as these superstars anymore. They’re just my teammates and my friends.’’

This season has been all about confidence for Hinostroza — the confidence he would make the team out of camp, the confidence he would prove management wrong when he didn’t, the confidence he’s more than just a speed player, the confidence he can play on any line and with anyone.

Vinnie Hinostroza goes to the net and scores against the New York Rangers on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden. (AP Photo)

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So far, Hinostroza is backing up all the big talk. Since moving up to Toews’ line in New York, the second-year forward has two goals and three assists in three games. Since being a healthy scratch in Vancouver out of the Christmas break, he has two goals and five assists in five games.

‘‘He [first] came up and played OK,’’ coach Joel Quenneville said. ‘‘He was playing in the middle, but I think he’s more effective on the right side. Moved him up with Jonny, and that line’s been real good.

‘‘He’s taking advantage of working hard and adding an element to our team, which is energy, speed and quickness. Getting on that top line, I commend him on how well he’s done.’’

Hinostroza has been an ideal fit with Saad and Toews. His speed through the neutral zone opens up some space for the two veterans, and his comfort level with the puck — he’s a natural winger but has played center off and on throughout his career — allows those two big bodies to crash the net while he carries the puck into the zone with speed.

Despite being five inches shorter than Toews and 33 pounds lighter than Saad, Hinostroza hasn’t been afraid to go hard to the net himself, either. Against the Rangers, he camped out in front of the crease and knocked in Toews’ between-the-legs pass. Against the Golden Knights, he got behind the defenders in the goalmouth and redirected a shot by Saad into the net. Against the Oilers, he was embroiled in a puck battle down low when the puck found its way back to Jordan Oesterle for a goal.

‘‘All of us can carry the puck, and all of us can drive the net,’’ Hinostroza said. ‘‘If one guy’s going, it’s going to open stuff for the other two.’’

The resurgent line — Toews has three goals and four assists and Saad two goals and four assists in the last four games — has given the Hawks some desperately needed scoring balance after relying on Patrick Kane and Nick Schmaltz to do the bulk of the scoring for most of the first half of the season.

Hinostroza also has held his own on the defensive side, which is critical because Toews almost always draws the toughest defensive assignment. Against the Oilers, it was Connor McDavid. He’s another superstar who might have made Hinostroza’s jaw drop a year ago.

These days? Just another guy on the ice.

‘‘As a young guy, there’s definitely that awe factor,’’ Hinostroza said. ‘‘That’s something I focused on this summer, just coming in and trying to be one of those players that can make a difference every game.’’

NOTE: The Hawks recalled Tomas Jurco and sent John Hayden to Rockford. Hayden was benched late against the Golden Knights and was a healthy scratch against the Oilers. Jurco has 13 goals and 12 assists with the IceHogs this season.

The Hawks also put defenseman Cody Franson on waivers. If he goes unclaimed by 11 a.m. Tuesday, he would be eligible to go to Rockford, too.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com