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Blackhawks relying on Marcus Kruger to keep developing as second-line center

Hawks center Marcus Kruger thrived while playing between Marian HossPatrick Sharp. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Hawks center Marcus Kruger thrived while playing between Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 18, 2012 8:14AM

Center Marcus Kruger is a young player without much NHL experience who has been thrust into a crucial role for the Blackhawks.

Much of the Hawks’ success is dependent on how well he plays. For the time being, at least.

General manager Stan Bowman has been looking for help up front. He’d like to add a center, but finding one for the second line is unlikely. That might cost him more than he wants to part with.

Adding a winger who can complement the first, second or third lines, given coach Joel Quenneville’s preference at the time, is more probable. Plus, improving the Hawks’ defense is Bowman’s top priority before the trade deadline.

In other words, there’s a lot riding on Kruger’s continued improvement on the second line, which usually features winger Marian Hossa. Since Patrick Kane moved back to wing after a season-opening experiment at center, Kruger has been the only player to show enough consistency to fill the role.

‘‘I’ve been taking it step by step, moving up in the lineup and getting more opportunities to play in all kinds of situations,’’ said Kruger, 21. ‘‘I think I showed that’s something I can do and I wanted to do.’’

The Hawks missed Kruger when he sat out nine games with a concussion, going 4-4-1. It didn’t take Quenneville long to put him back on the second line when he returned Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings. On Sunday, Kruger centered Hossa and Andrew Shaw in the Hawks’ 4-3 victory against the San Jose Sharks.

‘‘It was one of our better games in terms of all four lines going,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘That’s something we’ve been looking for and striving for all year.’’

One reason is that Kruger played well, giving the Hawks depth in the middle with Jonathan Toews and Dave Bolland. Kruger had an assist on Shaw’s goal and played more than 15 minutes.

‘‘Having Kruger back in the lineup helped us,’’ Quenneville said.

Before his concussion, Kruger thought he was approaching a ­level where he would join linemates Hossa and Patrick Sharp on the scoresheet often. He was doing all the right things, Hossa and Sharp said.

In Kruger’s first eight games between Hossa and Sharp, the Hawks went 7-0-1. He had a goal and two assists during that span, but his steady play provided the Hawks with balance and helped his linemates stay hot. Sharp and Hossa combined for 12 goals and 24 points in those eight games.

‘‘When I played with Hossa and Sharp for a while, we had good chemistry,’’ said Kruger, who plays on both special teams. ‘‘It’s all about chemistry with the guys.’’

Is Kruger concerned the concussion will hinder his overall progress?

‘‘I hope not,’’ said Kruger, who will play in his 44th regular-season game Wednesday against the Buffalo Sabres. ‘‘I never had a concussion before. You don’t really know how you feel when you wake up. I felt pretty much different every day. Now I think I can put that behind me and move on.’’

The big question is whether Kruger is capable of centering the second line in the playoffs. Right now, he seems to be the Hawks’ best option there.

‘‘I hope I can be that guy,’’ he said. ‘‘I think I can be a top-six forward. But I want to show that for a longer time.’’

NOTE: Winger Viktor Stalberg was named the NHL’s second star of the week that ended Sunday. He tied for the league lead with five goals last week, including the first hat trick of his career.

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