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Blackhawks’ Pirri working through the ‘gritty areas’ to find his spot

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Updated: October 20, 2013 8:43PM



Brandon Pirri didn’t see Paul Ranger coming; he had his eye on the puck at the point. So the cross-check that Ranger delivered to Pirri’s spine Saturday night in front of the Toronto goal knocked him to his knees. But Pirri popped back up on his skates, shoved Ranger out of the way, positioned himself perfectly and one-timed a slick pass by Brandon Saad through traffic into the net for his second goal in as many games.

“If you’re going to score in this league, you’ve got to get in the gritty areas,” Pirri, 22, said.

Those are the offensive instincts the Blackhawks know Pirri has, the ones that made him the AHL’s leading scorer a year ago, the ones that make him an intriguing prospect to fill the Hawks’ perpetual void at second-line center. The thought of Pirri skating in between Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane is a tantalizing one for Hawks fans — and even for Hawks coach Joel Quenneville.

Pirri just has to earn it.

“That’s basically the plan, to work his way up [the lineup] knowing that we feel he can be that type of guy that can play top minutes with top guys,” Quenneville said. “It’s going to take him some time, but I’m not discounting the opportunity.”

It’s not an easy climb to make. Playing on the fourth line, Pirri saw just 9 minutes, 37 seconds of ice time — compared with 23:08 for Jonathan Toews. Pirri, who assisted on Michael Kostka’s goal midway through the second period, was rewarded for his strong play with a stint on the power play. The net-front role usually occupied by Andrew Shaw or Bryan Bickell was a little foreign to the 6-foot, 183-pound Pirri, but he capitalized with his gritty goal.

“The puck’s just finding my stick,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun, and I’m just trying to do the little things right.”

But playing center in the NHL — particularly on a line with two offensive stars — is about more than scoring goals. It’s about being the responsible defender of the unit, about playing a 200-foot game, about doing the little things that allow Sharp and Kane to do what they do best. Pirri’s always been an offense-first player, and needs to round out his game before Quenneville will put him in such an important role. That’s why Michal Handzus won the job out of camp, despite not playing any preseason games and being clearly affected by the wrist and MCL injuries he suffered during the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring.

But the Hawks’ hope all along was that Handzus would simply keep the spot warm until Pirri was able to take it away from him. He’s getting closer. He has the highest faceoff percentage on the team (albeit in a small sample), having won 12 of 21 draws. He’s improving in his end and making the most of the limited minutes he gets, adapting to the NHL’s unrivaled level of speed and physical play.

“In a short amount of ice time in a couple of games, he’s been a real nice fit for us,” Quenneville said.

But can he fit in the spot the Hawks need filled the most? At this rate, it could only be a matter of time before he gets his chance to find out.

“There’s always room to improve,” Pirri said. “But I’ve really been focusing on [defense], and I’m just trying to get better every day. … If I play my game and keep getting these bounces, things will happen.”

NOTE: Rookie forward Joakim Nordstrom was sent down to Rockford on Sunday. If the Hawks don’t recall another player, they’ll head on their Florida trip this week with just 12 forwards.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus



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