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Blackhawks still seeking right combinations vs. Wild

by Brian Hedger / Chicago Blackhawks

CHICAGO -- Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is searching for more balanced scoring throughout his forward lines again, which could only mean one thing for practice Thursday at United Center.

The "Q line blender" was back at work.

Quenneville shuffled all four of his lines from how they were comprised during a 4-0 loss Tuesday at Xcel Energy Center against the Minnesota Wild in Game 3 of a Western Conference Second Round series.

The Blackhawks lead the best-of-7 series 2-1 heading into Game 4 on Friday in Minnesota (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN, RDS), but they'll probably have a new look for the Wild.

"We're looking for balance and maybe all lines, a little more threat to score on all the lines," Quenneville said. "That's what we're looking for a little bit. Offense, defensive reliability, [while] at the same time having maybe more offense spread out throughout our lineup."

Almost all the changes were notable, including left wing Patrick Sharp and right wing Marian Hossa flanking veteran center Michal Handzus on the third line.

Sharp, Chicago's leading scorer this season, is in an offensive funk during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He'd been working on the left side of the second line and Hossa had been on the right wing of the top line, with captain Jonathan Toews at center.

"We've played for Joel long enough that we're all comfortable playing with each other and we know that over a playoff series, things are going to change, and we trust in our coaching staff to make the right adjustments as a player," Sharp said. "You just kind of put your head down, get yourself ready to play and take the message that the coach is sending."

Sharp scored 34 goals and had 44 assists in 82 games during the regular season, leading the Blackhawks in goals and points (78). In nine playoff games, he's scored one goal and has two assists, after leading them in goals in each of their Stanley Cup titles in 2010 and 2013. Sharp did block a slap shot in Game 2 against the Wild and skated off the ice gingerly, but he finished the game.

His shot, which usually has pinpoint accuracy, has also been off target. He's missed the net on a couple of good scoring chances, which isn't usually the case. However, if Sharp is fighting through an injury, he's mum about it -- like most players in the postseason.

"[My shot] feels fine," Sharp said. "I'm not sure if it can get out of whack or not. I'm sure there's things that can happen that affect a player's shooting, whether it's physical, whether it's mental, but as far as me personally, I have no excuses."

Hossa's shooting percentage is lower than normal too. He and Sharp have both played solid defensively, which is likely the main reason they're being re-paired on the third line. Taking Hossa's spot next to Toews on the top unit Thursday was forward Ben Smith, who'd previously moved from a checking role on the fourth line for most of the regular season to centering the second line between Sharp and Patrick Kane in the first round against the St. Louis Blues.

The newly-formed second line featured Brandon Saad at left wing, Marcus Kruger in the middle and Kane on the right side.

"I've played there before [and] I've played with [Saad] a few games [now], so I think that doesn't change too much with my game," said Kruger, who centered the fourth line most of the season. "I just try to play the same way, but of course we're not happy with how [we've played] here the last few games. So, we need to come out strong in Minnesota. We know they're going to battle hard and we need to match that."

The fourth line also got a makeover.

Brandon Bollig was still at left wing, but rookie Joakim Nordstrom shifted to center from a role on the wing and forward Jeremy Morin manned the right side. Veteran forward Kris Versteeg, acquired in a November trade with the Florida Panthers, appears to be out of the mix again after being scratched in the first two games.

Also of note in the lineup for Game 4 is the pending return of defenseman Nick Leddy, who was a surprise healthy scratch in Game 3. The speedy 23-year old Leddy, who's originally from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, was predictably displeased by sitting out in favor of stay-at-home veteran defenseman Sheldon Brookbank.

He's looking to show improvement Friday, after being benched for all but 46 seconds of the third period in Game 2 on Sunday in Chicago.

"I think any player would be disappointed to be scratched, but that was a coach’s decision and I think for me as a player, I know I have to be better," Leddy said. "I think any competitor would get ticked at that. Like I said, I don't think I was playing the way the coaches wanted and it was a coaching decision. I've got to be better."

As for being in street clothes in his hometown Tuesday, instead of playing, Leddy said it wasn't any harder to take than it would've been in Chicago.

"I think it would have been tough either way," he said. "Like I said, you're a competitor. You never want to sit. You always want to be out there. That's on me. I'll be better."

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