CHICAGO -- Chicago Blackhawks forward Kris Versteeg met the media at United Center on Sunday, smirking and happy to play along with captain Jonathan Toews, who referred to him as "the new guy," at the press conference table.
There hasn't been a lot of face time for Versteeg at press conferences in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs; a turbulent postseason has bounced him in and out of the lineup since playing in all six of Chicago's games in the Western Conference First Round against the Nashville Predators.
Despite his familiar name and face, Versteeg does seem like a new guy for the Blackhawks, who can win their third championship in six seasons with a victory in Game 6 of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning at United Center on Monday (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).
Thanks in part to Versteeg's effort on center Antoine Vermette's game-winning goal in Game 5 at Amalie Arena on Saturday, the Blackhawks have a 3-2 lead in the best-of-7 series. They have a chance to clinch a championship on their home ice for the first time since 1938, but the "new guy" is trying to take a measured approach.
"[Game 5] was a nice game to be a part of, especially with my linemates," Versteeg said of Vermette and rookie forward Teuvo Teravainen. "I think we worked pretty well together. It was our first game really together as a line. [We] built a little chemistry."
Versteeg had an interesting start to this series.
After becoming a father for the first time two days before Game 1, he replaced injured power forward Bryan Bickell in the first two games. Bickell returned after a bout with vertigo to play Game 3, which led to Versteeg being scratched again, but a poor performance by Bickell led Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville to flip-flop them again for Games 4 and 5.
It paid off in Tampa on Saturday when Versteeg played his best overall game of the postseason. Playing left wing, he hounded the puck and helped the Blackhawks' third line post the best possession numbers among their forwards.
According to War-On-Ice.com, Versteeg and Teravainen each had five individual scoring chances to lead the Blackhawks, with Versteeg attempting four defined as high-danger opportunities. One of them led to Vermette's goal to put the Blackhawks up 2-1 in the third. Versteeg's rush up the wing sparked the goal, earned him the primary assist and garnered some strong postgame compliments.
"He was unreal," Blackhawks right wing Marian Hossa said. "He held onto the puck extremely well. He made unbelievable plays … saucer passes, prime chances. He had one of the strongest games this season. He was noticeable. He's unreal when he plays with the puck so much."
Versteeg was much more direct in his skating than he'd been. He utilized good speed going up and down the ice, rather than getting bogged down moving side-to-side. He was strong on the puck, a force along the walls and played like the guy Chicago general manager Stan Bowman hoped he was getting when he re-acquired Versteeg on Nov. 14, 2013 from the Florida Panthers.
If he continues to play that way in Game 6, or possibly a Game 7 in Tampa (on Wednesday, if necessary), it could be a big advantage for the Blackhawks.
"We've had some guys in the playoffs this year that have experience, missed some games [and] it wasn't because of health issues," Quenneville said. "Those are always challenging situations for a coach or a player. How it's received can be delicate. In [Versteeg's] case, he certainly was not happy, but nothing you can do about it. Go out there and practice, play it like a game, keep yourself ready. I loved his response in this series particularly."
Versteeg sounds pleased just to be playing again. After a disappointing 2014 postseason (one goal and two assists in 15 games), he came back intent on making up for it.
"Whether it be myself or [Bickell] or [Vermette], or whoever is not in the lineup on any given night, we all feel we're good players," Versteeg said. "We all feel we're players that can contribute. I don't think that confidence is lost in us. We all understand what we've done in this League before, [and] what we can do."