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Round 1

Blackhawks counting on rookies to step up

Chicago views defending champion Penguins as blueprint for playoff success

by Brian Hedger / Correspondent

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks don't need to look far for proof they can win the Stanley Cup with rookies in the lineup.

The defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins had five rookies make their Stanley Cup Playoffs debut last season. Four played significant roles, including goalie Matt Murray, who started 21 of their 24 postseason games.

The Blackhawks don't have a rookie goalie, but they will have four rookie forwards in the lineup against the Nashville Predators in Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round at United Center on Thursday (NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports 2, CSN-CH, FS-TN).




"We can definitely compare ourselves to [Pittsburgh] a little bit and kind of learn from that," said left wing Ryan Hartman, who led Blackhawks rookies with 31 points (19 goals, 12 assists). "We can see that even though we do have some young guys, that excitement and new compete level of the playoffs can bring a lot out of young players. It's going to be fun, and we're looking forward to [Thursday] night."

Hartman is the leader of a rookie contingent who helped the Blackhawks win the Central Division and finish with the most points in the Western Conference (109), which assures home-ice advantage through at least the conference final. Chicago used seven rookies this season, not including 26-year-old defenseman Michal Kempny, who played his first NHL season.

Video: CHI@COL: Hartman beats Pickard five-hole

Hartman, Tanner Kero, Nick Schmaltz and John Hayden are the rookie forwards Chicago will use in Game 1. Schmaltz will play left wing on the top line, Hartman will play left wing on the third line, Kero will center the fourth line and his left wing will be Hayden, who joined the Blackhawks on March 13 after completing his senior season at Yale.

It's similar to the 2016 Penguins, who supplemented their core group in the playoffs with rookie forwards Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl and Conor Sheary.

"Those guys brought a lot of energy and a lot of speed to their team, and they were a big part of their Cup run there," said Schmaltz, who had 28 points (six goals, 22 assists) in 61 games. "We have a good balance of veterans who've won [the Cup] before and young guys coming up, so hopefully we can learn from those guys and chip in."

The Blackhawks are counting on it. After they were eliminated by the St. Louis Blues in the first round last season, coach Joel Quenneville watched Pittsburgh closely. Speed and energy were the main things he noticed about the Penguins rookies.

"You've got to give [the Penguins] credit, because those young guys came in and they played fast [and] they played quick," Quenneville said. "They really gave their team a lot of energy and enthusiasm. Come playoff time, there's no better time to have a boost from those guys, and we're in a situation here where we need our young guys. It's important for those guys to make a contribution, and the bigger the better."

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