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Hossa return could remedy Blackhawks issues

First line has struggled in injury absence of sturdy right wing

by Brian Hedger / Correspondent

Hossa on returning from injury

Marian Hossa on returning from injury

Marian Hossa talks to reporters after returning to practice

  • 03:36 •

CHICAGO -- The wait is almost over for the Chicago Blackhawks, who are eager to see what their top line looks like with Marian Hossa back on the right wing.

Hossa, who's missed eight games with a lower-body injury, might play against the St. Louis Blues at Scottrade Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports). Hossa practiced for the first time Tuesday since getting injured going for a loose puck against Anaheim Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm on Feb. 13.

Hossa skated with center Jonathan Toews and left wing Andrew Ladd, who was reacquired by the Blackhawks in a trade with the Winnipeg Jets on Feb. 25 specifically to play on that line. 

"We're going to make sure [Hossa's OK] in the morning, but he could play [Wednesday] night," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "The line looked good today. It looks like there's some speed, some skill, some responsibility, and three big guys [who] can all skate and move well together. [We're] looking forward to seeing that line play and helping us out."

Toews, who has 24 goals and 23 assists in what might wind up being his least productive NHL regular season, could benefit most. His line has struggled in puck possession and production almost all season after former left wing Brandon Saad was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the offseason. 

Video: CHI@DAL: Hossa cuts, shoots and scores

"It's always fun to play good hockey and all of a sudden you realize, 'Wow, we've been missing this guy for a little while here,'" Toews said of Hossa. "He's only going to make our team better. We all know what [Hossa] brings to our team, so it'll be fun to get him back. He'll be healthy and hopefully rested, more than anything."

Multiple players were given auditions to fill Saad's former role, but Quenneville eventually settled on Andrew Shaw after giving him a tryout in that spot coming out of Christmas break. It worked initially and he stayed on the top line for 23 games, helping the Blackhawks run off a franchise-record 12-game win streak from Dec. 29 to Jan. 19.

Shaw stayed at left wing on that unit after Hossa's injury, and moved to the right wing when Ladd was acquired. Hossa will resume that position upon his return, which means Shaw is headed to the fourth line. 

Quenneville hopes the new look provides more balance offensively, helping to ease the scoring burden on the second line of Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane.

"If we can get that [top] line to be productive, and [Anisimov's] line productive, as well, it's a good 1-2 punch," Quenneville said. "We feel there's balance deeper than we've seen at any point this year. We're better when everybody's contributing as four lines, and that's what we're looking for."

The Blues will be a good litmus test. 

St. Louis has size, strength and physicality, which makes it a challenge for opponents to win puck battles and spend time in the offensive zone. Unleashing Ladd, Toews and Hossa should give the Blackhawks a better chance to win those confrontations.

Video: CHI@ARI: Hossa goes short side for equalizer

Ladd (6-foot-3, 200 pounds), Toews (6-2, 201) and Hossa (6-1, 207) provide size, speed and strength across all three spots on the top line, which hasn't been an option all season.

"I'm looking forward to playing with those two," Hossa said. "Hopefully we click. Hopefully we find the chemistry and we can be the dominant line we want to be."

Without Hossa, that line hasn't been dominant. 

It's been four games since Ladd arrived, but his 5-on-5 shot attempts percentage (SAT%) with the Blackhawks is 44.9, while Toews has a 45.7 SAT% in that span and Shaw 43. Chicago is banking on Hossa's return inflating those numbers.

"He's such a powerful man when he gets the puck down low, you can count on him coming out with it a lot of the time," Ladd said. "It's a good thing to have."

That's the theory, at least. There is still the matter of actually playing together in games.

Chicago has 15 games left before the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin, and that span will likely determine what the Blackhawks' lineup looks like to start the postseason. 

"Probably all three of us are eager to see how it looks and then work on becoming a line the team can count on," Ladd said. "We'll see how it goes. A lot of times on paper things look pretty good, and then you just hope it translates onto the ice."

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