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Blackhawks’ Marcus Kruger has become weapon on faceoffs

Hawks center Marcus Kruger w46.2 percent his faceoffs last season. He has w57.1 percent this season. | Getty Images

Hawks center Marcus Kruger won 46.2 percent of his faceoffs last season. He has won 57.1 percent this season. | Getty Images

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Updated: January 26, 2014 6:23AM



If Marcus Kruger is taking a faceoff, chances are it’s an important one. It’s probably in his own zone. It’s often against the opponent’s top center. Much of the time, it’s short-handed.

Win that draw, and the Blackhawks can flip the ice, kill some clock and even generate some chances of their own. Lose that draw, and the puck might be in the back of the Hawks’ net in four or five seconds.

As the man in the middle of the fourth line — which, on the Hawks’ deep roster, is actually the checking line — nearly every faceoff carries some weight.

‘‘Most of them are in the [defensive] zone,’’ Kruger, 23, said. ‘‘So you really want to make sure you win it.’’

Last season, as good as Kruger was as a defensive force and a penalty-killer, each faceoff was a dicey proposition. He won only 46.2 percent of his draws, 71st in the league. This season? Under the tutelage of Yanic Perreault, one of the best faceoff men in NHL history, Kruger has turned himself into one of the best in the league, ranking 10th. He’s winning 57.1 percent of his faceoffs — with his percentage consistently between 56.8 and 57.5 at home, on the road, short-handed and even strength — adding one more defensive weapon to an arsenal that might land him a spot on Sweden’s Olympic team.

‘‘Give him some credit,’’ said coach Joel Quenneville, who has continued to give more responsibility and ice time to Kruger’s line with Brandon Bollig and Ben Smith. ‘‘He’s bearing down. I think he’s gone down to the science of it.’’

That means breaking down film of opposing centers to learn their tendencies, getting to know officials and how each one drops the puck, working on leverage, positioning and grip and getting some help from your wingers on the 50/50 pucks that can be the difference between a goal against or a breakout the other way.

It’s a small facet of the game with big consequences, and it took Kruger some time to appreciate that — and to act on it.

‘‘When I came over here [from Europe], it was a big difference from what I was used to,’’ he said. ‘‘It takes a little time to adjust. Yanic’s been good; he’s been really good. We work a lot during practice, so that helps. It’s gotten better and better, but it’s still an ongoing process. You have times where you struggle, and you’re going to have days when it just feels good. It’s something you need to work on every day to be at a high level.’’

Because of the nature of his role, Kruger doesn’t have terribly flashy numbers. Through 39 games, he has four goals and 11 assists — solid but unspectacular. But his versatility and defensive style make him an intriguing possibility for Team Sweden. Olympic rosters all will be announced by Jan. 7, and Kruger still is hoping to make it.

‘‘I want to play in the Olympics, for sure,’’ he said. ‘‘The biggest thing you can play for is your country. That’d be really something.’’

The possibility of joining fellow Swedes Niklas Hjalmarsson (a lock) and Johnny Oduya (a likely choice) in Sochi is tantalizing for Kruger, and he admitted the three talk about it from time to time. But he knows the only way to get on that team is to do well with the Hawks.

And every facet he can add to his game — penalty-killing last season, faceoffs this season — makes him that much more valuable to both.

‘‘We all know that it’s coming up here,’’ Kruger said. ‘‘But there’s not much you can do, really, except playing your best hockey here. Then things like that are going to sort themselves out.’’

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkLazerus



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