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Schmaltz more confident in second season with Blackhawks

With first-year nerves subsided, forward stepping up his game

by Tracey Myers @TraMyers_NHL / Staff Writer

When Nick Schmaltz joined the Chicago Blackhawks in September 2016, he said it felt daunting.

"It was nerve-wracking, coming on a team with this caliber and what they've done," he said this week.

It's not that Schmaltz, a 22-year-old center, wasn't used to being part of a successful program. He played for North Dakota when it won the 2016 NCAA men's ice hockey championship. But making that leap to the pros, and joining the Blackhawks, who had won the Stanley Cup three times since 2010, was intimidating.

But Schmaltz entered this season with a different outlook; no longer was he the new guy in the room or a bit player.

The Blackhawks (29-32-8) have had a disappointing season, but Schmaltz hasn't. He's tied with center Jonathan Toews for second on Chicago in scoring with 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) with the Blackhawks set to host the Boston Bruins (43-15-8) at United Center on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET; NBC, TVAS, NHL.TV).

Chicago is 14 points behind the Colorado Avalanche for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference. Boston is in second place in the Atlantic Division, six points behind the first-place Tampa Bay Lightning and seven ahead of the third-place Toronto Maple Leafs.

For Schmaltz, hitting his stride this season meant getting back to playing his game and not being in awe of his surroundings.

"I think the biggest thing is comfortability with the puck, having that confidence to make the play I've been accustomed to for my whole career," Schmaltz said. "And probably another thing is balance, [knowing] when to shoot, when to pass, not always looking for the pass. Trying to be a dual threat with the shot and the pass."

Another asset Schmaltz has is speed, which has been more noticeable this season.

Video: CHI@ANA: Schmaltz slips one through the five-hole

"He's got a real deceptiveness to his game, whether it's his speed or his quickness, the puck follows him around," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said earlier this season. "There's a real danger to him being on the ice. And defensively, that awareness down low in his own end is something he's getting better at. Having him play on the wing and back at center, there's more of a weapon there."

Finding that balance can be tough for a young player. In Schmaltz's rookie season, the first instinct was to concede to Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa or Toews because of who those players were and what they'd accomplished in Chicago. That's especially true with Kane, Schmaltz's linemate for most of this season and Chicago's leading scorer with 64 points.

"For sure, when you're out there with him you want to give him the puck as much as you can, because something usually good will happen," Schmaltz said.

Schmaltz has gotten past his rookie jitters, intimidated by the Blackhawks leaders no more. And when it comes to on-ice production, he's now one of them, supported by young teammates, including forwards Vinnie Hinostroza, 23, and Alex DeBrincat, 20. 

"At the end of the day they're just great guys," Schmaltz said of the veterans. "They don't act like they've done what they've done. It's cool to be in the room, joke around with them, feel comfortable and feel a part of the team.

"There's a lot of us [young players] now, so we can't just be helping out once in a while. We have to make sure we're coming in every game and if not scoring, we're playing well defensively. We can produce a lot, help this team out, whether it's offensively or defensively."

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