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Niklas Hjalmarsson eager to return from suspension

Most people in Chicago probably had a hard time watching Wednesday night’s underwhelming Blackhawks opener, a 5-2 loss to the Blues. It was even harder for Niklas Hjalmarsson, who was suspended for the game after his preseason hit on St. Louis’ Ty Rattie.

“You almost feel uncomfortable watching the game, because you can’t help the team out,” said Hjalmarsson, who watched helplessly as the Hawks gave up three power-play goals.

Well, help is on the way. Hjalmarsson, one of the top defensive defensemen in the league and a strong penalty killer, will be back in the lineup Friday against the Nashville Predators. While Joel Quenneville declined to say which defenseman will be bumped by Hjalmarsson, it’s most likely going to be Trevor van Riemsdyk, who had a rough first game, including two ill-advised penalties.

“Personally, it wasn’t great,” van Riemsdyk said. “I put myself in some bad spots and that led to penalties. Obviously, I have to eliminate that.”

Van Riemsdyk played all 82 games last season. The fact that he could find himself sitting out just the second game of the season is a sign of how deep the Hawks are on the blue line, with veteran Brian Campbell, Czech import Michal Kempny, and rookie Gustav Forsling in the mix. Hjalmarsson was particularly impressed by both Kempny and Forsling, who were making their NHL debuts.

“If you didn’t know it was their first game, you definitely wouldn’t have thought that it was,” Hjalmarsson said. “I think on the back end, we’re as deep as we have ever been.”

With eight defensemen on the roster, including veteran Michal Rozsival, there should be pretty fierce competition for playing time among van Riemsdyk, Kempny, Forsling and Rozsival.

“That’s a great thing to have,” van Riemsdyk said. “Competition always brings out the best in you.”

That was fast
After going through a 34-minute span in which the Hawks only managed three shots on goal against the Blues, Quenneville wasted no time in shaking up his lines. Artemi Panarin is expected to start Friday’s game on the top line with Jonathan Toews and either Marian Hossa or Richard Panik, while rookie Tyler Motte will play with Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane. Quenneville flirted with these lines during the last week of the preseason, but went back to his usual top six to start the season.

“We have to have the puck more,” Quenneville said. “We need more tighter groups of five-man units, and we need our ‘D’ involved, be it off the attack or in zone. Backside pressure has to be tighter. Basically, more tenacity with the puck.”

Matthews matters
The hockey world was still abuzz Thursday about top pick Auston Matthews’ four-goal debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“That’s something, very amazing,” Quenneville said. “First three shots go in, four goals — great for the league, great for hockey. He’s going to be an amazing player.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus

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