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Vermette becoming integral part of Blackhawks’ playoff run

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
(Bill Smith / Chicago Blackhawks)

If you’re Antoine Vermette, what’s not to like? The Blackhawks are going to the Western Conference Final, his performance is trending upward, and this extended playoff intermission has its benefits.

“Lincoln Park Zoo,” said Vermette. “With our daughter, Léonna, who will be 2 in June. First time for her. Chicago, it’s so nice. The layout. Where we live, we can walk to the beach. Great city. And the best part now: I’m on a great team too.”

When Vermette was acquired from the Arizona Coyotes at the trade deadline, longtime fans in this precinct pinched themselves. Not because he cost the Blackhawks Klas Dahlbeck, a young defenseman, and a first-round draft pick. It was the organization’s prevailing go-for-it-now posture. Again.

As one former Blackhawk volunteered, “A move like this would not have happened here years ago.” But with Patrick Kane absent indefinitely from an otherwise robust roster, Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman snared Vermette, the most coveted individual on the market – a veteran center who wins faceoffs, abides by a 200-foot discipline and never needs a note from his doctor.

After an uneventful takeoff that included only one goal during the regular season – the lone shootout score in a victory over the Edmonton Oilers – Vermette has gradually validated his acquisition by earning increasing ice time and taking crucial draws.

Vermette is a professional, as was obvious when he endured hockey’s harshest label – healthy scratch – for two opening-round dates against the Nashville Predators. Vermette has played 475 consecutive regular-season games, the second longest active streak behind Andrew Cogliano (622) of the Anaheim Ducks, whom the Blackhawks visit for Game 1 Sunday.

“I’m not going to lie to you, it felt strange,” said Vermette. “Usually, I’m the one encouraging guys who aren’t playing. To have a game going on outside while you’re inside the locker room. But I tried to make the best of it, and didn’t want to be the story. The story is the Blackhawks going for another Stanley Cup. It’s exciting, and I want to contribute.”

As a highly decorated unrestricted free agent to be, Vermette could have moped, pouted or led with his lower lip. Instead, out of respect to the franchise and new teammates, Vermette big-leagued nobody, sucked it up and saw his way through a transition period that was hardly seamless.

Now the 32-year-old is an integral part of the mix. He scored in the Blackhawks’ 3-2 Game 2 triumph over Nashville. Moreover, he has compiled an enviable body of work at the dots, winning almost two-thirds of his playoff faceoffs. This department will be vital against the Ducks, who thrive on close encounters and are better endowed at center than anything the Blackhawks have encountered this postseason.

Taking faceoffs is an art, but the puck has a mind of its own. For instance, a player can launch the perfect shot, it can beat a goalie, but clank against the post and it doesn’t even count as a shot. Vermette acknowledges he had a couple games that were “out of whack” bad, but he’s found his accustomed rhythm by handling more faceoffs under pressurized circumstances. That’s tough to do on the wing, where he had a brief tour here.

Vermette was a handful when the Coyotes eliminated the Blackhawks in 2012. In 2007, he reached the Final with the Ottawa Senators, who succumbed to the Ducks. Now, he has that look, that glow of anticipation.

“I can feel it around these guys,” Vermette said. “I watched Duncan Keith’s interview after we clinched in Minnesota. Sitting down, very mellow. Not satisfied yet. Same with Kaner. Very reserved. This is my third trade late in a season, but this time is different.”

Vermette is fluent in English and French, but if you want to try a foreign language, ask about what happens next. He will be in demand come July, when he’ll likely hit the jackpot. You might as well be speaking Latin. He’s focused on June, when wife Karen is due with the couple’s second child, and when he could partake of an excellent adventure in Chicago.

“When I was with Columbus, my dad, Pierre-Paul, helped me move in before camp,” he said. “Then we decided to fly to Chicago. Bus tour, boat tour, Cubs. You know how it is playing. Hotel, rink, airport. We wanted to see the city.”

And if he could take a Stanley Cup home to Quebec this summer? Antoine Vermette, professional, just rolls his eyes.

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