CHICAGO -- Marcus Kruger sits next to Jonathan Toews in the Chicago Blackhawks dressing room at United Center, so he doesn’t have to go far to seek advice from his captain.
That works inversely as well. Toews can turn and speak to the 22-year-old Swedish forward when something’s on his mind.
“Every game I get in his ear and tell him to shoot the puck or just go to the net and he's going to get an ugly one, so he scored a nice one last night,” Toews said.
The nice one he was referring to was a goal that put the Blackhawks in front 3-1 against the Detroit Red Wings in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals. Chicago had been controlling the play for nearly 30 minutes when Johnny Oduya gave the Blackhawks the lead.
Kruger gave them some breathing room shortly after, backhanding a shot past Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard, who tried to cover up the puck when it was on the netting behind him just a couple of seconds before.
“It was kind of an odd situation there but I think [Daniel] Carcillo will find a way to get the puck out there someway so it just ended up on my stick and I just tried to shoot it,” Kruger said. “It’s always nice to score, but just getting that 3-1 goal, it doesn’t matter who scores. It’s just getting that 3-1 lead and knowing we’re going to have a good chance to win the game. It was a good feeling in the same way when Oduya scored. The second goal was huge for us, and getting the 3-1 was a nice feeling.”
Kruger joined the Blackhawks late in the 2010-11 season and has spent several stretches as the team’s No. 2 center -- a process that included several players auditioning and none keeping the post permanently. This season he has settled in as a bottom-six forward and embraced the demands of the position like killing penalties and playing in more of an “energy” role.
Kruger and Michael Frolik have developed into the team’s go-to PK duo, earning the most ice time shorthanded. It is a way to supplement his ice time if coach Joel Quenneville decides to lean on his stars at even strength.
“You just try to take advantage of every opportunity you get,” Kruger said. “Now it’s all about winning. We need everyone here. Doing that job is something we all need to do.”
Quenneville said, “The one thing about [Kruger] is predictability in his play. He has real good mind positionally, good awareness, got some quickness, anticipates on both sides of the puck real well. I just think he’s prepared, he’s competitive, he keeps himself in the play. We use him a little bit more than we did last night. I’ve seen some nights where he’s 17 minutes and you have an appreciation for what he brings.”
One area that has been inconsistent for Kruger is his work in the faceoff circle. He lost all 11 of his faceoffs in Game 1 against the Red Wings, which came after losing 12 of 15 in Game 5 against the Minnesota Wild in the opening round.
Kruger won 46.2 percent of his draws in the regular season, but the past two games have dropped his postseason total to 35. 1 percent, 24.4 on home ice.
“It was a tough night certainly,” Quenneville said. “Guys want to make sure that they are effective and efficient in that area. [The Red Wings have] got some guys who have a lot of experience. They’ve got some strength and the intelligence where they know how to position themselves and whether there is an advantage to be taken before it hits the ice. Those are all things that I would except him to be progressing with and he’ll be winning his share of faceoffs, particularly key ones on the kill. That’s one of those nights that hopefully he can get better off of.”
It does appear Kruger has been heeding Toews’ words of wisdom. Kruger scored in Game 5 against Minnesota to go along with his insurance goal Wednesday night.
The two-game scoring streak has afforded him the opportunity to repay the favor.
“I think he just wanted me to get a goal there when I didn’t score for a while. It was nice to get one like last night," Kruger said. "So yesterday I told him the same thing: Go to net and get a dirty one.”