Tough stretch run can help young Blackhawks prep for playoffs

Tough stretch run can help young Blackhawks prep for playoffs

Ryan Hartman was on the ice in the waning minutes of the Blackhawks' game against the Dallas Stars on Feb. 4, a rookie thrown into a critical situation after earning the extra responsibility.

Good thing, because Hartman's diving block of a Jamie Benn shot probably saved the Blackhawks two points. It certainly saved them a trip to overtime.

"Situations like that can only improve your game as you're going along, add that depth to our team," coach Joel Quenneville said. "We're going to need these kids to be playing in some crucial situations and applying it now, it's a good learning curve."

As good as this stretch run is for the Blackhawks overall, it's especially good for their young players. The hockey is that much more intense, that much more meaningful. Some teams are looking to improve their postseason seeding. Some teams are still fighting to get into the playoffs. Either way, the tests are plentiful and a good primer for young players for the postseason.

And that's fine with them.

"This time of the year has always been my favorite (since) coming up through juniors," Hartman said. "That's when the real teams show up, and that's when that playoff drive and that desperation comes for some teams that are fighting for playoffs spots. It's a fun time of year, and I think we're all ready for the challenge."

[SHOP BLACKHAWKS: Get your Blackhawks gear right here]

Quenneville has given more responsibility to young players who have earned it. Hartman has gotten more — playing in late-game situations is part of that. Tanner Kero has, too.

"It's good for getting that experience and trying to get confidence in those big, tough games," Kero said. "You know how hard you have to work and the little things are so important, all throughout the game. That one play could cost you or could go in your net. You have to work hard every shift and can't take a shift off."

Dennis Rasmussen has gone from a bubble player to a consistent bottom-six player, be it on the wing or at center. Rasmussen wasn't here for the Blackhawks' postseason in 2016, but he could be here this time around. If so, these games mean a lot.

"If you want to be a team that wins in the end, you have to be a team that gets better every day — team and players, especially the young guys, the rookies," Rasmussen said. "I count myself as a young guy, and I feel I need to get better if we want to win it. That's the focus we have every practice and every game."

Since September, the Blackhawks have said they need everyone to contribute this season. That goes for the postseason, too. Who knows if all of them will be here once the playoffs start. But for those who are, the more they learn, the more responsibility they take on and the more they succeed, the better the overall team will be.

"We need them to improve and to be a part of it, playing in key situations," Quenneville said. "Their enthusiasm is healthy for our team as well. We're putting them in situations where the experience will be necessary."

Tanner Kero latest to try and fill Artem Anisimov's skates

Tanner Kero latest to try and fill Artem Anisimov's skates

PITTSBURGH – Tanner Kero's been thrown into a lot of different situations in his time with the Blackhawks, be it third- or fourth-line center or penalty kill.

But with Artem Anisimov out, the second-line center spot has become new top-line, left-wing spot: The Blackhawks will keep trying guys out until they find one that works. Kero's the latest to get that opportunity, and since it worked well on Monday, he'll be there again on Wednesday.

Kero will center Artemi Panarin and Patrick Kane again when the Blackhawks host the Pittsburgh Penguins. The line had a good start to Monday's game against the Lightning in Tampa, scoring the team's first two goals — Kero assisted on Panarin's opener.

Coach Joel Quenneville liked Kero's first go-around there.

"Defensively he's in a good spot — he's usually in a reliable spot in his own end — he made a couple of nice plays offensively and didn't change his game too much," Quenneville said. "It's not easy playing with guys at that next level. It's certainly a great challenge and a great opportunity, so I thought he did a great job, took advantage of it. We'll see how he does going forward but we'll keep him in there for [Wednesday's] game and that gives us some more options."

[VIVID SEATS: Buy Blackhawks tickets]

Learning on the fly can be part of a rookie season, especially when injuries arise. Jonathan Toews said Kero's handled everything well this season.

"Come to think of it, it's one of those little things that maybe goes over my head but he's definitely one of those versatile players who's as consistent as ever," Toews said. "He has, for his age, an incredible level of maturity and he carries that with him wherever he goes. You're seeing offensive improvement, too. He was making some good plays with Bread Man and Kaner. He's showing he can do it all and I think his work ethic and attitude's a source of that success."

Earlier this season Kero was with guys like Ryan Hartman and Vinnie Hinostroza. They were all familiar with each other from their Rockford days, and that showed. Playing with two guys you don't know so well? It's a bit of a challenge, and one the three talk out. But ultimately, Kero said you have to rely on your instincts. 

"You go over things before the game and on the bench, get a feel for what you might want to do. But then you just have to play hockey," Kero said. "You have to trust your game, make plays. You know they're going to make plays with the puck so you try to use your speed and get open and try to go to the net, create space for them and a little traffic in front and try to capitalize on opportunities."

Anisimov will be out another 1-2 weeks. Asked if Anisimov has started skating back in Chicago yet, Quenneville said, "I don't think so but I'm not positive. But he's progressing." Filling Anisimov's skates isn't easy, as evidenced by the Blackhawks' search for his temporary replacement. Kero is the third guy to get that shot, and he took advantage of his first showing.

"Obviously it's a great opportunity to play with two great players," Kero said. "You just try to do everything you can and do the little things right."

Briefly

- Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith didn't practice on Tuesday but both are expected to play against the Penguins.

- Corey Crawford gets the start against Pittsburgh.

- Hartman, scratched after a rough game against the Florida Panthers, is probably back in against the Penguins.

Blackhawks sign prospect Matheson Iacopelli to entry-level contract

Blackhawks sign prospect Matheson Iacopelli to entry-level contract

The Blackhawks officially agreed to terms with prospect Matheson Iacopelli on a two-year entry-level contract that begins next season and runs through the 2018-19 campaign.

He will report to the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League.

The 22-year-old forward recently completed his sophomore season at Western Michigan, where he scored a team-high 20 goals and added 16 assists in 40 games. It was a huge bounce-back year after recording only one goal and six assists in 27 games during his freshman season.

[VIVID SEATS: Buy Blackhawks tickets]

A third-round pick (No. 83 overall) by the Blackhawks in 2014, Iacopelli possesses a dangerous shot and is a big-bodied winger at 6-foot-3, 206 pounds. His two-way game still needs fine-tuning, something he will certainly work on in Rockford, but he gives the IceHogs another much-needed scorer.

Iacopelli is the fourth Blackhawks prospect to sign this season out of college, joining John Hayden, Anthony Louis and Luc Snuggerud.