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Blackhawks’ Brandon Bollig breaks out of hitting slump

Blackhawks winger BrandBollig has 26 hits his last six games. | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Blackhawks winger Brandon Bollig has 26 hits in his last six games. | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

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SUNDAY

JETS AT BLACKHAWKS

The facts: 6 p.m., CSN, 720-AM.

Updated: February 27, 2014 6:58AM



The puck was only a couple of feet away from Oilers winger Taylor Hall, and by all rights, he still had a claim on it.

But Blackhawks winger Brandon Bollig also was only a couple of feet away from Hall, and his intent was clear.

Rather than chase the puck, Hall braced for impact, and Bollig — after a quick flick of the puck to Marcus Kruger down low — drilled his left shoulder into Hall’s sternum. A quick pass, shot and deflection later, Ben Smith had scored.

Bollig didn’t get an assist, but make no mistake about it, it was his goal. In fact, the only reason the puck was in the offensive zone was because, 10 seconds earlier, Bollig had crunched Justin Schultz along the far boards, creating another turnover, which Bollig dumped into the corner.

That first-period shift on Jan. 12 was a light-bulb moment for Bollig. In his previous 14 games, Bollig was credited with 13 hits. Since that shift six games ago, Bollig has 26 and has helped kick-start another strong run for the Hawks’ fourth line.

“I just felt there was a bit of a lull in the middle part of my season, and I’m not really interested in being a non-factor,” Bollig said. “I don’t want to be a guy that nobody notices unless I get on the scoresheet. There are many ways to get noticed.”

Much has been made of Bollig’s evolution from enforcer to regular player, from a guy paid to punch people in the face to a guy paid to shut down the opponent’s top line. But by focusing on becoming a more well-rounded player offensively and defensively, it seemed Bollig got away from what got him to the NHL in the first place — the fact that he’s a rock-solid 6-2, 223-pound wrecking ball.

The next step is putting it all together — the physical play and the responsible play.

“You want to have some physicality in your game, but make sure you’re doing the right things as far as the puck goes, and what you’re giving up, and [not] taking penalties,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “He’s done a nice job with it, but he’s more effective when he’s on the body.”

The Hawks, as they were the last two seasons, are last in the league in hits.

Their system is built on skill and puck possession, and as Patrick Kane put it last year, it’s hard to hit when you have the puck all the time.

But there’s still plenty of value in a big hit. It can create a turnover. It can free up space for skill players. It can create a spark.

And there’s a more intangible benefit, as well.

“Even if it doesn’t create a goal, it instills that intimidation factor into a defenseman’s mind when you’re on the forecheck,” said Bollig, whose 118 hits are only three behind team-leading Andrew Shaw and one behind Brent Seabrook, despite him playing vastly fewer minutes. “Guys will maybe be looking over their shoulder a bit more. And it can wear their ‘D’ and their forwards down and make them more tired later on, so our skill guys can go to work.”

Bollig’s linemates, Smith and Kruger, have noticed the difference the last two weeks.

“It creates more space for us,” Smith said, “and more loose pucks.”

On this team, in this role, Bollig’s job will never be to run around hitting people with reckless abandon. But when the opportunity is there and the timing is right, Bollig knows he can make a major impact — figuratively and literally.

“You don’t want to stray too far from the system,” Bollig said. “But you can also add your own little flavor to it.”

NOTE: Defenseman Duncan Keith (illness) skipped practice Saturday but is expected to play Sunday against the Jets.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus



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