With five new forwards and two new defensemen to weave into his long-established core, the trick for Joel Quenneville in the early going this season is to find the right combinations — the right lines, the right defensive pairings, the right five-man groups, the right power-play units, the right penalty-killing units.
But it’s a fine line between tinkering and not giving each combination a chance to breathe, to find itself, to mess up and to jell. After two poor showings to open the season, though, Quenneville tried yet again to find the right look for Saturday’s rematch with the Nashville Predators.
“We know the urgency of tonight’s game, and the importance of it,” Quenneville said of Game No. 3 of 82. “There’s some predictability of some guys on each line, and some balance, as well. That’s what we were looking to establish.”
And so Vinnie Hinostroza moved to the top line, Marian Hossa was dumped down to the fourth line, and Artemi Panarin and Patrick Kane were reunited yet again. The result was an encouraging, but still flawed, 5-3 victory over the Predators, highlighted by Richard Panik’s first career hat trick.
The Hawks were still badly outshot (16-8 in the first period alone) and still shaky on the penalty kill (giving up their seventh power-play goal in three games), but they were a little sharper, far more active offensively, and took advantage of a handful of highlight-reel saves by Scott Darling to race out to a 3-0 lead and hold on for the first win of the season.
Darling, who made his name with his brilliant performance in the first round of the playoffs against Nashville in 2015, was superb from the start, making a stop on Colin Wilson five minutes in. One shift later, rookies Tyler Motte and Nick Schmaltz combined to steal the puck in the offensive zone, and Schmaltz sniped a wrist shot from the left circle for his first NHL goal.
After Jonathan Toews sent new rival P.K. Subban flying with a hit along the boards, Mike Ribeiro flipped the puck over the glass for a penalty, and Brent Seabrook scored six second into the power play to make it 2-0. Midway through the period, Darling made another brilliant save on Wilson, a sprawling glove stop in the crease. Ten seconds later, Panik scored on a spin-o-rama backhand in the Nashville crease to make it 3-0. Nashville’s backup goalie, Marek Mazanec, had given up three goals on five shots at that point.
The Predators found life late in the first, however, when Wilson finally solved Darling on a 3-on-1 sprung by a Michal Kempny misplay. An Artem Anisimov hook — his fourth penalty in three games — late in the second period led to Craig Smith’s power-play goal from the top of the left circle just six seconds later. The 3-0 lead was down to 3-2.
But Panik scored again early in the third period, on a power-play and off a goalmouth feed from Marian Hossa (who is still chasing his 500th career goal). After Viktor Arvidsson scored to draw within 4-3, Panik scored again on a 2-on-1 with Patrick Kane.
Panik has four goals in three games and has been a physical presence, too, as he continues to entrench himself on the top line alongside Jonathan Toews.
“We’ve got some guys who are still trying to nail down exactly where they’re going to be,” Quenneville said before the game. “He’s one guy who got a good opportunity to begin with, and [can] finish strong for us. He’s had some good shifts, some physical shifts, and if we can have that type of presence, it can help certain lines. When he brings that, it helps his overall game.”