9:21 AM CST, March 5, 2013
Ever since unloading Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd shortly after they won the Stanley Cup in 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks have been looking for a third line that can check, score and annoy opponents.
For now -- everything with Joel Quenneville is only for now -- Andrew Shaw, Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg have some Versteeg-Ladd-Dave Bolland in them.
Just look at that relentess shift in the middle of Sunday’s game in Detroit when Shaw’s line started a possession that lasted about a solid minute in the Red Wings zone and included parts of a line change.
Almost every Hawks line owned its Wings opponent for the first half of the game, but still, that shift recalled the glorious 2010 Stanley Cup season when it seemed that at least once a game one of the big-boy lines pulled off a shift where it won every loose puck and played keepaway.
Thing is, we’re talking a mix of the third and fourth lines doing it to a proud rival Sunday.
It’s easy to jump ahead here. This record-setting 19-0-3 start demands a Stanley Cup as the only acceptable conclusion. Similarly, comparisons to the last Cup winner come quickly, no matter how much more talented and reliable Bolland’s line was.
But somebody has to play on the third line, and remarkably, Shaw, Bickell and Stalberg have proven effective and productive enough to paralyze Quenneville’s propensity to play toy soldiers.
Shaw has to be smarter about channeling his endless energy, especially given the responsibilities of playing center, but say this for the guy: You always notice him. Shaw isn’t the ultimate pest that Bolland was, but he willingly skates to the tough areas, and the areas he skates to become tougher as a result. He’s a gamer on the road with three goals and a plus-3 rating.
In the last 12 games overall, Shaw has four goals and eight points. He banged in a Bickell pass for the only goal in a 1-0 win over Columbus. Earlier that week, he was as surprised as his teammates to be tapped as the third skater in the shootout against dreaded Vancouver, and then blew in at a hundred miles an hour and roofed a backhander for the winner.
Bickell leads the trio with 48 hits, which is what you’d expect from a 6-foot-4, 229-pounder. In addition to his perfect pass to Shaw from behind the net, Bickell’s mix of strength and growing skill showed up on that goal against Columbus when he blocked a shot at the Hawks’ blue line, outfought a defender and drilled a shot past Steve Mason.
In roughly assuming the role of Ladd on this line, Bickell has only two goals and five points in the last 12 games, but his plus-4 rating might be the most important number that Quenneville looks at.
Stalberg remains a high-wire act with the puck, but didn’t we say that about Versteeg? Let me be clear here: Versteeg was far better than Stalberg and more versatile. What’s similar, however, is the burst that always seems to surprise opposing defensemen and wrist shots that seem to surprise opposing goalies.
Stalberg has four goals in his last 12 games, but more notable was his brilliant steal and pass in the Wings slot that set up Patrick Kane for the game-tying goal with 2 minutes, 2 seconds to go in regulation Sunday.
The welcome offensive contributions and responsible defensive play of this line has mirrored the Hawks’ other units and allowed Quenneville to roll all four lines without fearing a bad matchup. That says something about the Hawks’ depth, underscoring the value of Shaw’s line.
Shaw, Bickell and Stalberg haven’t reached the level of Bolland’s former line, and they might seem to be on the verge of a bad play too often, but they’ve at least earned their learner’s permit.
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