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Growth apparent as Blackhawks’ Brandon Pirri evolves on the ice

Blackhawks center BrandPirri has six goals five assists 18 games but has wonly 44.9 percent his faceoffs. | AP

Blackhawks center Brandon Pirri has six goals and five assists in 18 games but has won only 44.9 percent of his faceoffs. | AP

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SATURDAY

BLACKHAWKS at CANUCKS The facts: 9 p.m., Ch. 9, 720-AM.

Updated: December 24, 2013 6:08AM



When you’re a 22-year-old rookie with an offense-first mind-set, and you see Patrick Kane streaking down your right side with the puck on a string, the last thing you want to do is play it safe, hang back a bit, just in case there’s a turnover and the opponents flip the ice in a hurry.

You want to do whatever it takes to score. All risk, all reward.

“At first, your eyes kind of get big and you get a little excited when you see him with the puck — you just want to go,” said Hawks center Brandon Pirri. “But after a while, you figure out that if you play good defense and you get him the puck, and then you’re where you’re supposed to be, he’s going to find you, anyway.”

The evolution of Pirri’s game — from a guy who was injured and cut from training camp, to a fourth-liner out of his element, to a second-line center maybe in over his head a bit, to a bona fide top-six forward — isn’t complete just yet. Pirri knows this. He has a long way to go to become the kind of 200-foot player that Jonathan Toews is, that Marian Hossa is, that even 21-year-old linemate Brandon Saad is.

But he’s making progress. And the fact that he’s able to be critical of his own performance and notice the subtle improvements in his game is as good a sign as any that he’s headed in the right direction.

“It’s been a lot of fun, but it’s been a learning curve,” Pirri said. “I think I’m getting there.”

Pirri, the American Hockey League’s leading scorer a year ago, has shown a nose for the net, with six goals and five assists in 18 games, including three consecutive games with a goal last week. He’s picking his spots and going hard to the net at the right time. He’s seeing significant time on the power play. And he’s shown a playmaking ability that complements his talented wings.

But there was never a doubt about his offensive skills. The question was, could he become the kind of two-way center the Hawks needed him to be? So his focus has been on what he calls “the little things” — backchecking, working in the corners, being a safe outlet for breakout passes from the Hawks’ puck-moving defensemen when the home-run stretch pass isn’t a viable option, and faceoffs. Hardly glamorous stuff.

Pirri has struggled at the dot, winning just 44.9 percent of his draws. But like equally struggling third-line center Andrew Shaw, he’s been working with faceoff guru Yannic Perreault. In fact, Pirri worked with Perreault in Rockford the last couple of seasons, as well.

“You win faceoffs, you’re not playing defense too often every shift,” he said.

Hawks coach Joel Quenneville hasn’t been shy about pointing out the defensive deficiencies of his young players, particularly Pirri and Jeremy Morin. But he’s encouraged by how Pirri’s game has developed since he moved up to the second line about four weeks ago.

“Offensively, he’s been fine,” Quenneville said. “Defensively, we’re seeing improvements in his game.”

It was only six weeks ago that Pirri was stuck in Rockford, angry about being left off the opening-day roster and wondering if he’d have to find another team to get the opportunity he felt he deserved after three very productive seasons in the AHL.

Injuries and a then-punchless Hawks offense gave him another chance. But while his offense brought him to the NHL, it’ll be his defense that keeps him here.

“You want to gain the coach’s trust, and you do that over the course of a lot of games,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but I think I’m on my way to becoming that 200-foot player that he’s looking for.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus



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