From the day this season began with a 5-2 loss to St. Louis on Oct. 12, the Blackhawks have been trying to put a puzzle together.
For the better part of 50 games, coach Joel Quenneville has tinkered with it, moved pieces around, become frustrated when they didn't fit correctly and often blew the whole thing up and started over.
But a funny thing has happened in the last couple of weeks: That puzzle -- we'll call it The Four-Line Limbo -- may have finally been solved.
"I think our four-line rotation really has improved, be it on this trip or over the last month or so," Quenneville told reporters after the Hawks beat Minnesota 4-3 in overtime on Wednesday.
Two pieces that have fit nicely with Jonathan Toews are Nick Schmaltz and Richard Panik. That line has been together for just three games, but is flustering opponents at both ends of the ice.
Just as important as that combo, though, is the fact that Dennis Rasmussen, Marcus Kruger, Marian Hossa, Ryan Hartman, Tanner Kero and Vinnie Hinostroza/Andrew Desjardins are earning more ice time with the postseason just two months away.
What this has done is -- for the most part -- allow Quenneville to stop playing Patrick Kane 23, 25 and even 27 minutes.
Kane played 22:42 or more in 20 of the first 38 games with a high of 28:48. In the last 17 games, he's eclipsed 23 minutes just three times. That's a big deal, not only for his health, but for the health of the team. Everyone needs to be counted on come playoff time and that's why the emergence of Kero, Rasmussen and Hartman is so important.
If all four lines continue to contribute, it also puts more pressure on Hawks opponents because even if they send their top two defensemen at Kane's line all night, the remaining D-men are going to have their hands full.
"We're having more zone time, more pucks in their end. I still think we can be more disciplined as far as giving up quality or quantity off the rush," Quenneville said. "But that team there (the Wild), they've got four lines that can make plays. They're all dangerous and they're fast. It's always going to be a good test when you meet this team."
Lest you think this is a piece gushing over the Hawks' play, let's not forget that they were badly outplayed for long stretches Wednesday night and were incredibly fortunate to walk out with a win. This is clearly not the same Minnesota team that was vanquished in the 2013, '14 and '15 postseasons by the Hawks. The Wild is faster, deeper, hungrier and far more lethal with a far better defense and goaltender than in the past.
Predicting a Minnesota win over Toews, Kane, Duncan Keith and Co. in a seven-game series isn't as insane as it was two years ago. It actually might be the right call, because for as good as the Hawks' forwards have been, the back end continues to allow far too many Grade A chances. We saw myriad examples of that Wednesday when Minnesota ripped off a whopping 19 shots in the second period.
If Corey Crawford wasn't on top of his game, the Wild easily could have put up a 5-spot in that frame.
"We had the opportunities, but when they needed a save, they got it," Minnesota coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Usually when you don't score on your great opportunities, bad things happen."
But get enough great opportunities and it's bad news for any opponent. And it's something the Hawks need to remember when they face the Wild again on Feb. 21, March 12 … and quite possibly come playoff time.
With his 3-point game Wednesday, Jonathan Toews passed Jeremy Roenick for ninth place in Blackhawks history with 597 points. Pit Martin is in eighth place with 627 points. Toews (262G) is 5 goals from tying Roenick for seventh in that category. … Richard Panik set a career high with his 12th goal. … Niklas Hjalmarsson, who had 5 blocks vs. the Wild, was second in the league heading into Thursday's game with 137.
"No nights off for us. We've got to keep pushing here. It's the last stretch, and we want to go into the playoffs flying."
-- Corey Crawford
Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.