Line changes: Kane back at right wing

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Line changes: Kane back at right wing

Patrick Kane said earlier this season he felt more comfortable on right wing. On Thursday, he was back there.

Kane was at wing again with Jonathan Toews and Viktor Stalberg as the Chicago Blackhawks prepped for the New York Islanders. It was one of several line changes for the Blackhawks, who also had Marcus Kruger centering the second line with Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa

For Kane, its a change thats not really a change. He feels better there, and it never hurts to reunite with Toews, either.

Weve played together a lot and theres chemistry. Whenever were put together, it raises the excitement, Kane said. Im sure itll take some shifts to get used to it again but Im excited about the opportunity. Whenever you play with Johnny, Sharpie or Hossa, youre going to be excited about it.

Kane proved he could play the center position just fine through the first two months of the season, and his line with Hossa and Daniel Carcillo thrived through October. But as November continued, that lines production quieted. Kane has just three assists over his last six games.

I proved I could play there. But I got on the road and got on a long trip and things didnt click for me, personally, at that position. They thought my game was fine there, I didnt, Kane said. Im excited to be back at the wing, playing the game that I know and developed for a long time. Its not going to come back right away; it may be a couple shifts or periods maybe. But Ill get familiar with it.

Dont be surprised if it doesnt click right away, however. Kane and Toews just have that chemistry together and its likely to come back together again soon. Toews feels it, too.

The good thing about playing with Kaner is sometimes you can just get away from the puck and get away from all the attention on the ice and sneak back door and hide sometimes, Toews said. He can hold onto it, get his head up and back opponents up and buy some time. Its nice to play with a guy like that.

Things were getting stagnant, so coach Joel Quenneville is making changes to try and re-invigorate that offense again. Kane proved he can play center with no problem, and he could go back there again this season. He just does right wing better.

Everybodys had stretches where theyve been at top end of their game and producing at rate theyre accustomed to; theyve all had stretches where it hasnt come. When you move them around a little bit, sometimes it comes out and all of a sudden theyre more confident in scoring area and get back to where we expect them to be, Quenneville said. Both lines should be able to score and produce regularly. We have a lot of options. This is one we havent explored yet. Its one well try.

Briefly

Jonathan Toews was named the NHLs No. 2 star for the month of November. Toews finished November with nine goals and 18 assists. He had a career-high five points in the Blackhawks 6-5 victory over the Anaheim Ducks on Friday.

Defensemen Brent Seabrook and Steve Montador also took maintenance day on Thursday. Theyre both expected to play Friday night. Corey Crawford will start against the Islanders.

Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling taking advantage of No. 1 reps

Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling taking advantage of No. 1 reps

Life as a backup goaltender can be difficult. 

The job entails being prepared at all times and performing at a high level when your number is called despite going sometimes weeks without seeing any action.

With Corey Crawford backing up Team Canada at the World Cup of Hockey, Scott Darling is getting the No. 1 reps in the crease for the Blackhawks.

And he's taking full advantage of that.

"Yeah, obviously I miss Corey, but it's fun to be the guy right now," Darling said following a 2-0 loss in Wednesday's preseason opener to the Pittsburgh Penguins. "I'll take any starts I can get. I don't care if it's regular season or preseason, I just want to play as much as I can. It was nice to get the first game under my belt."

After facing just three shots in the first period, Darling stayed on his toes by denying all 23 shots he saw in the second period — a handful of them on the penalty kill.

"I definitely don't like sitting there," Darling said of the first period. "I don't think they had a shot for about 12 minutes, but you've got to learn how to play in those situations too. It's nice to get some game feels."

Darling finished with 33 saves overall in the Blackhawks' loss and was sharp in the first dress rehearsal of the year as both goals were out of his control — a redirect on the power play and a rebound tap-in at the doorstep, both by Chris Kunitz.

Credit his strong play to working hard in the offseason and maximizing on the opportunity he's been given.

"Darling certainly was a standout, not only when we got a little bit overwhelmed in the second period, but really throughout the game," Blackhawks assistant coach Kevin Dineen said. "He was certainly a positive, which we always expect out of him but I think it's a testament to the way he prepared himself this summer and I think it certainly showed tonight." 

Darling doesn't get many chances to anchor the blue paint on a nightly basis.

He started in 24 games last season, 11 of which came during the final portion of the season in March and April when Crawford was dealing with an upper-body injury.

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Darling said that stretch was "probably the best I've ever felt" because you know you're the guy, which eliminates the stress factor of turning in a great performance to earn your next start.

He finished the 2015-16 campaign with a 12-8-4 record, 2.58 goals against average and .915 save percentage, including one shutout.

Not bad, not great. 

This season is a chance to prove he can continue to be a consistent and reliable goaltender in any situation, and when the 27-year-old Lemont native gets the opportunity to represent the team he grew up rooting for — something he never loses sight of — Darling expects to be on top of his game when called upon.

"I'm seriously excited to be on the Chicago Blackhawks still," he said. "I just want to play the best I can when they give me a chance to play."

Nick Schmaltz making good early impression with Blackhawks

Nick Schmaltz making good early impression with Blackhawks

Nick Schmaltz figured it would be different at this level.

Yes, Schmaltz had played against some of college’s best en route to that national title with the University of North Dakota. But the pro level is the pro level for a reason.

“It’s a big transition from the college level. Guys are faster, more skilled, and you have less time and space,” he said. “But as camp’s gone on everyone’s gotten a little more comfortable and making more plays and I think we’ll continue that into tonight.”

Schmaltz looked pretty comfortable on Wednesday night, when the Blackhawks lost their preseason opener to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 2-0. Schmaltz logged 18 minutes, 30 seconds of ice time, including 2:53 on the power play. For the Madison, Wisc., kid who used to come to Blackhawks playoff games, playing that first game at the United Center was “surreal.”

“It was good,” he said after the game. “Obviously we didn’t get the results we wanted, but we had some good opportunities. We can get more pucks on net. We let the goalie off a little easy, but hopefully just keep building and keep getting better every day.”

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Schmaltz has practiced some on the left wing, and that’s where he was in Wednesday night’s scrimmage (with Vinnie Hinostroza centering and Richard Panik on right wing). The Blackhawks always love versatility, but Schmaltz going on the wing is more of a need than an option right now.

“Most of the openings in the organization are on the wing. We’re pretty full down the middle. It’s something we’re trying to see if he can fit in there and play well there,” assistant coach Mike Kitchen said. “And he’s got a nice set of hands, a nice skill set, so hopefully he’ll be comfortable on the wing there.”

Schmaltz has played more right wing than left, but he said the adjustments aren’t so bad.

“Just wall work. Might have to make some backhand plays off the wall but other than that, nothing, really,” Schmaltz said. “Since me and Panik are playing off wing, we’ll get across the blue line, cut across and make plays to each other. It’ll be fun out there.”

Schmaltz held his own in his first game in a Blackhawks uniform. There are high expectations for him entering this season, but he’ll let his game dictate where he ends up.

“If I play my game, play hard, I should put myself in a pretty good spot,” he said. “But I can’t control what decisions they make, so I’ll compete as hard as I can every night and show them what I can do.”