Their names aren't household variety, but Chicago's role players are rising to the top as the regular season winds down.
Casual observers might not be too familiar with Ben Eager
, Andrew Ladd
, Kris Versteeg
, Tomas Kopecky
, Adam Burish
or Colin Fraser
. They also might think of a large, warbling former football analyst if you bring up John Madden
It doesn't mean any of their contributions to the Blackhawks' current five-game winning streak is any less significant. The Hawks' secondary players are playing first-rate hockey, and the team now is poised to win the top spot in the Western Conference; they entered Thursday's games tied with San Jose with 109 points, but hold the tiebreaker with 51 wins to the Sharks' 49.
"It doesn't matter which line is going," Versteeg said following a 4-point night in a 6-5 win Wednesday against St. Louis. "As long as everyone is contributing we're going to be successful."
Nearly everyone has contributed, which will make coach Joel Quenneville
's job difficult when deciding who plays and who sits in next week's Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Fraser's fourth line opened some eyes in wins against Calgary at home last weekend and on the road Tuesday at Dallas, while Versteeg and Eager were key parts of a six-goal explosion against the Blues that was keyed mostly by unheralded players.
"We've just been playing like a team. All the lines have been rolling and making smart plays. We're a handful."
-- Ben Eager
Eager's seventh goal of the season gave Chicago a 2-1 lead in the first and was followed 30 seconds later by Bryan Bickell
's third of the season that drove Blues goalie Chris Mason
from the game. Bickell had just been called up from AHL Rockford that day to replace Kopecky, who had been playing great before getting injured at Dallas.
Versteeg's shorthanded goal, his 19th of the season, came less than two minutes after Bickell's, and it put the Hawks up 4-1 after 20 minutes. In the second period, Ladd netted his 17th, and that was followed five minutes later by defenseman Jordan Hendry
blasting his second of the season to put the Hawks up 6-1.
It all happened in a flash, showing why the Hawks are such a legitimate threat in the playoffs. Stars like Jonathan Toews
, Patrick Kane
, Marian Hossa
and Patrick Sharp
didn't even register a single goal.
"We've just been playing like a team," Eager said. "All the lines have been rolling and making smart plays. We're a handful."
They're also easing Quenneville's mind about the Hawks' injury situation. Defensemen Kim Johnsson
(concussion symptoms) and Brian Campbell
(collarbone) have been out for an extended period, with Johnsson's return still unclear and Campbell just returning to the ice this week for light skates.
Kopecky (upper body) could be out for the final two games this weekend, and Hossa -- who was hurt in the first period against St. Louis -- didn't return after skating one shift in the second period.
The NHL also may review a slash by Dustin Byfuglien
for a possible suspension, so the Hawks may really need their unheralded lines even more this weekend against Colorado and rival Detroit.
"We're looking for all lines to contribute," Quenneville said. "Not just as production lines, but just how we have to play."