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Handzus gives Hawks long-sought 2nd-line center

by Corey Masisak / Chicago Blackhawks
Bill Smith / Chicago Blackhawks

CHICAGO -- When the seventh-seeded Detroit Red Wings stunned the Chicago Blackhawks by winning three consecutive games in the Western Conference Semifinals and pushing the Presidents' Trophy winners to the brink of elimination, coach Joel Quenneville needed something to awaken his dormant offense.

Goaltender Jimmy Howard and the Red Wings had suffocated the top offensive club in the conference and grabbed a 3-1 lead in the best-of-7 series. Quenneville, who preached balance the entire season, went in the other direction.

Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp, who normally skate on the second line, were placed on the flanks of captain Jonathan Toews to reunite the "Super Line." That trio proved to be dynamic, and the Blackhawks staged a second-round comeback with three straight victories.

Not to be forgotten was another big move, one that helped make the "Super Line" strategy work and continues to pay dividends after Sharp and Kane returned to the second unit for the Western Conference Final against the Los Angeles Kings: Quenneville made veteran Michal Handzus, who was acquired from the San Jose Sharks at the NHL Trade Deadline, his new No. 2 center.

"When we did it, we had two goals in three games," Quenneville said. "We were looking for any kind of offense, and it didn't matter where it came from. Hopefully that could ignite us offensively."

Had the second line (Handzus, Marian Hossa and Bryan Bickell) been unproductive, loading up the top trio would have ultimately either fizzled from extra defensive attention or been broken up to help the rest of the lineup. Instead, Handzus, Hossa and Bickell found chemistry quickly, and they battered Detroit's defense with puck possession and scoring chances.

Hossa had no points and seven shots on goal in Games 2-4 of the second round, but he had seven shots in the next two games after being united with Handzus, a fellow Slovak. Hossa had a power-play goal and four points in the final three games.

In Game 6, all three members of the new-look second line scored a goal -- including Handzus' first of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, which ignited a third-period comeback.

Dave Bolland had been the Blackhawks' No. 2 center for much of the season, but he missed time with a groin injury and has been more effective in reduced minutes after a brief stint back on the second line since returning. Andrew Shaw is more suited to be a third-line center who plays a physical style and chips in at both ends.

The Blackhawks have long been looking for a No. 2 center. Sharp and Kane have spent time there but are more natural fits on the wing. Fourth-line wing Marcus Kruger also had multiple auditions.

Chicago found one in an unexpected place -- Handzus, whose offensive contributions have diminished over the years -- was seeing mostly fourth-line minutes before Game 5 against the Red Wings.

"I don't think anybody thought I was going to be playing in the top six," Handzus said. "I just came to the team that was winning before I came here. They played great the whole season. I just try to fit in, try not to disrupt anything because they were playing great. I just try to play anywhere. I don't care if I'm playing on the fourth line or second line. It's all about the team right now, winning. It's not about individual goals anymore."

When the Western Conference Final started, Quenneville wanted more size on the top line to combat the brute force of the Kings, so Bickell and Hossa went to the top line and Kane and Sharp returned to the second. Handzus stayed, and the offense has continued to click despite facing one of the best goaltenders in the world, Jonathan Quick.

"We had a chance late in the season to play him, [Kane] and [Sharp]," Quenneville said of Handzus. "It clicked. Basically it was an experiment we tried for a couple of shifts. We exited that game thinking, 'Let's give it another look here.' [It] seemed to be progressive. [We] had some looks in the Detroit series and the Minnesota series, as well. [Handzus] gives it some consistency, defensively responsible. But he's certainly playing with a couple real nice players that complement him as well."

Handzus, 36, was added as a veteran depth player for a low cost at the trade deadline. He had one goal and two points in 28 games for the Sharks and was one of three players general manager Doug Wilson moved to help his team get younger and faster.

Handzus played eight games for Chicago in the 2006-07 season and was grateful for this chance to pursue the Stanley Cup. He's played for six organizations -- including four years with the Kings -- since his rookie year in 1998-99 but has yet to play in a Stanley Cup Final.

"You dream all the time," Handzus said. "When you get to the playoffs, you're driven all the time. You realize you're 36. When you are 25, when I was [with the Philadelphia Flyers], we made the conference finals, you lose Game 7, you're thinking you'll get there again and you'll win it. Then it's maybe nine, 10 years later, you're in the same spot. In 10 years, you realize I'm not going to be there. You kind of realize it might be one of your last chances. But I don't think it's any different than before. Yeah, I want to win for sure. But that comes for the whole team. Everyone is driven that we want to win. I don't think I'm the only one."

When Wilson and San Jose were ready to go in a different direction, Chicago was a desired destination for Handzus.

"You know, when you do those decisions, you don't know how it is going to end up," Handzus said. "Chicago, they played great all season. That's one thing. They had a great team. The thing was I wasn't sure of was where I was going to fit in. Like I said, I knew the coaches, I knew the players, I knew the city, I was familiar with the organization. I thought coming in it would be a pretty easy transition for me to fit in, try to help. Obviously, they're a great team, organization. They won before. You don't know how it is going to end up. You don't envision you're going to play in the conference finals, anything like that. You try to make the decision that you're comfortable with, then just come in and try to help."

Handzus certainly has helped. He had a goal and six points in 11 games after the trade, and he has two goals and nine points in 16 playoff games.

He scored his second goal of the postseason in this series to effectively put Game 2 out of reach. Then, with Game 4 in the balance, Quenneville made a slight tweak switching Kane and Hossa, and the Slovaks combined for the game-winning goal 70 seconds into the third period.

The Blackhawks were the best team in the League from wire-to-wire during the regular season. They are deep and talented at forward, defense and in goal. But finding a consistent No. 2 center after Bolland was injured was a need. Handzus may not have been the obvious choice, but he's been the right one for this team and part of the reason Chicago can clinch a spot in the Stanley Cup Final with a victory Saturday in Game 5 at United Center (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, RDS).

"He's that kind of guy," Quenneville said of Handzus. "He's low-key, kind of quiet about his disposition. Him and [Hossa] have a history, good friends from home, played on different teams together. He played for Chicago before [and] was comfortable coming back here. He's one of those guys that fits in seamlessly, very aware of what his role is, what the expectations are, fulfilling anything that can contribute to the team's success. That's basically how he's gone about his business."

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