Chicago Blackhawks forward Matt Carey (25) celebrates with Brandon Saad (20) after Carey scored against the Nashville Predators during the second period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, April 12, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Brandon Bollig played in his 82nd game of the season Saturday night at Bridgestone Arena, a remarkable achievement for a guy who had played just 43 games over the previous two seasons, and had been pigeonholed as a one-dimensional fighter.
He has reinvented himself as part of the Blackhawks’ lockdown fourth line, logging major minutes in key situations against top lines — often starting in his own zone and flipping the ice during his shift. And while he hasn’t scored in 18 games, he’s earned Joel Quenneville’s trust and played in every single game, all the way through to Saturday’s 7-5 loss to the Nashville Predators.
And yet Bollig still doesn’t feel like he’s got a guaranteed spot in the lineup for the playoffs.
“There are a lot of guys fighting for playing time right now, and earning their way in,” Bollig said. “It’s nice to have that competition — it keeps guys fresh and it keeps guys honest. Nobody gets complacent and everyone’s kind of fighting every night. That can be very good for a team, because obviously everyone wants to play every game. The competition keeps guys hungry.”
Indeed, after going most of the season without having too many difficult lineup decisions to make, Quenneville now faces several as the Hawks put the regular season behind them and look forward to the playoffs, which likely will begin Thursday in either St. Louis or Colorado.
With Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane both skating and both “absolutely” ready for Game 1, according to Quenneville, is there a way to find a spot for center Peter Regin, who has been consistently very good for several weeks? Is there a role for rookie center/winger Joakim Nordstrom, who has shown vast improvement in his latest NHL stint? And how do you squeeze in winger Jeremy Morin, who played as big a role as anybody in turning around the Hawks’ fortunes following a three-game losing streak, scoring his fourth goal in five games on Saturday?
And does Michal Rozsival, who missed nine games over the last month with a lower-body injury, regain the everyday role he played in last year’s playoffs, or has Sheldon Brookbank earned his way into a continued rotation?
These are what Quenneville likes to call “good problems.” But the Game 1 lineup might not include any of those three forwards — even Morin.
“I think the guy you look at is Jeremy Morin,” Patrick Sharp said. “He’s playing awesome. … You see a guy like that who’s been getting limited minutes, and his minutes are going up every game. You see him get out there and make the most of his opportunity. It forces everybody to pick up their game, too.”
That means, among the forwards, just about everybody not named Toews, Kane, Sharp or Hossa is theoretically expendable — be it for a night, a series, or the playoffs. Bollig hasn’t scored in 18 games. Kris Versteeg hasn’t scored in nine. Quenneville has great faith in both players, but what if the Hawks’ offense fizzles against the Blues?
There are at least three forwards waiting in the wings, eager to take someone’s — anyone’s — spot.
“I feel like I played decent the last month, so if he wants me in, I’ll be ready,” Regin said. “And if I’m not going to start and then come in later, I’ll be ready, too. I think it’s good competition. Everybody’s professional, everybody’s positive. Because to go deep, you obviously need depth, in case guys are not performing, or guys are getting hurt. I think it’s a good thing.”
Marian Hossa scored his 30th goal (and then took the rest of the night off) in the Hawks’ loss. Matt Carey scored his first career goal, and Andrew Shaw scored his 20th with 1:35 left to tie it before Nashville’s Patric Hornqvist scored with 58 seconds left to win it.