CHICAGO -- It's a line that's centered by an energetic rookie and two guys playing for their next contract.
It's also become a line for the Chicago Blackhawks that needs to be accounted for after already helping in a big way in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Viktor Stalberg, Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw -- the rookie center -- combine to form the Blackhawks' third line, and there's a reason they've stuck together almost the entire season.
"I didn't think we were great during the first five games [of the season], but we made some strides during that stretch and after that we started playing better," Stalberg said. "It seems like we kept improving throughout the year and getting better. I thought we had a pretty good year overall."
Now it's all about the playoffs.
After one postseason game, they're already a big reason the Blackhawks are up 1-0 against the Minnesota Wild in a Western Conference Quarterfinal series heading into Game 2 Friday at United Center (9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC). Bickell's goal following a nice pass from Stalberg provided a 2-1 overtime win in the series opener Tuesday, and odds are it won't be the last they produce in this postseason.
All three have adapted to their role of playing defense first to create turnovers then turning those into havoc in the offensive zone. They do it by being speedy, scrappy and flying under the radar.
There's top-end speed on the right side with 27-year-old Stalberg. There's a big body on the left side, 27-year old Bickell, who led the team in hits and has an underrated skillset. And in the middle there's 5-foot-10, 180-pound Shaw, who despite his age (21) and slight build will muck it up with anybody in the dirty areas of the ice.
Shaw nearly got into a scrap with St. Louis Blues goalie Brian Elliott behind the net this season, and exchanged gloved punches in front of crease with Hal Gill, a 6-foot-7, 243-pound veteran defenseman for the Nashville Predators. That happened late in the season and made teammate Brandon Bollig smile.
"Bollig was saying, 'If you guys are going to go, I'll go get Shaw a step ladder,'" Shaw said while smiling. "I always just stick up for myself, no matter who it is."
It's reminiscent of the third line the Blackhawks iced during their run to the Stanley Cup in 2010, which featured playoff pest Dave Bolland at center, Andrew Ladd at left wing and Kris Versteeg on the right. Oddly enough, Stalberg came to Chicago in a trade that sent Versteeg to the Toronto Maple Leafs not long after the Blackhawks' victory parade.
Ladd was moved to the Atlanta Thrashers (now Winnipeg Jets) around the same time, as Chicago underwent a large roster turnover to get under the salary cap. After identifying a core group of stars to keep, general manager Stan Bowman tore down the depth of his Cup-winning roster in order to build it back more efficiently.
Three years later, the Blackhawks ran roughshod through the Western Conference in a 48-game season and are a favorite to make a long playoff run. The third line is one reason, because it adds what Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville calls "quality depth."
The Blackhawks have matured quite a bit this season, and prime examples are Bickell and Stalberg. The question, though, is how long they'll do it in Chicago.
The salary cap is coming down under the new collective bargaining agreement, which means Bowman again may have some difficult decisions. The Blackhawks have six players who have been with them all season who will become unrestricted free agents if they don't get a new contract before July, including Bickell and Stalberg.
"I've been here a couple years and we haven't really reached our potential, so it feels like everything is coming together this year. I certainly wanted to be here for this run and these playoffs. We'll take it from there, I guess, and see what happens afterward."
-- Viktor Stalberg
According to Capgeek.com, Bickell's cap hit this season was $541,667 and Stalberg's was $875,000. Each scored nine goals and added 14 assists playing all 48 games, which prorates to roughly 15 goals and 25 assists in an 82-game season.
Those numbers likely would net each a bigger payday on the open market, and there's still the bulk of the postseason left to add more value.
"It would be nice to get a nice [playoff] run in, but they're going to decide to do whatever they're going to do at the end of the year … that's on my agent's end," Bickell told NHL.com earlier this season. "I'd definitely like to stay here. From where it used to be to where it is now, this is the city to play for. We've got the great, amazing fans, the organization and everything. I'm not a guy that likes to be [going] team to team and I've enjoyed it here so far."
So has Stalberg, who views the uncertainty of his future with the team as a motivator to do something special in the present.
"That's the biggest thing," Stalberg told NHL.com earlier this season. "I love it in Chicago and I would love to play my entire career here, but the fact is they do have a lot of top players and that's just the business of it in the cap era. I've been here a couple years and we haven't really reached our potential, so it feels like everything is coming together this year. I certainly wanted to be here for this run and these playoffs. We'll take it from there, I guess, and see what happens afterward."