When the Blackhawks left on their circus road trip, it was a team with its lineup in flux.
Now they're back with 6 wins in seven games and their lines in perfect order thanks to a fourth line that can be counted on at both ends of the ice.
Blackhawks game dayBlackhawks vs. Dallas Stars at the United Center, 7 p.m. Tuesday
TV: Comcast SportsNet
Radio: WGN-AM 720
The skinny: The Hawks have beaten the Stars twice this season, including last Friday's 2-1 win in Dallas that ended in the 11th round of the shootout. Corey Crawford starts in goals for the Hawks, likely against the Stars' Kari Lehtonen. Dallas defenseman Stephane Robidas is out with a broken leg suffered against the Hawks last week. Winger Tyler Seguin is questionable with concussion-like symptoms.
Next: Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center, 7 p.m. Thursday
-- Tim Sassone
The emergence of the fourth line of Marcus Kruger, Brandon Bollig and Ben Smith certainly was a highlight of the trip.
"We're really happy with the way the four lines have progressed through this year," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "Ordinary at the beginning of the year, a little bit unsure in some situations, but I thought we really progressed this trip.
"The line of Krugs, Smitty and Bollig this trip, they were spectacular, especially the last four or five games. A lot of nights they scored the big goal. They had a lot of defensive responsibilities that turned into offense from that line.
"They led the charge a lot of nights. They do their job. You're comfortable with them in their own end. They know their roles and responsibilities. They've been very effective and when they score a goal it's always a bonus factor."
Smith had an especially strong trip, earning more and more ice time. He spent the first part of the season not knowing if he'd even be in the lineup after coming up from Rockford.
"I don't think there will ever be a time in my career that I'm not under pressure to perform," Smith said. "This is the longest I've been in the NHL, and I'm glad to be part of it. You definitely feel part of it. When I've come up in the past it was like you didn't know how long it was going to be for."
Bollig sees a more confident Smith to this point.
"It's no secret he's becoming more confident," Bollig said. "That really helps me and Krugs, obviously, when you see a guy like that become even more confident. He was a scratch for a couple games there and I know the feeling, so it's nice that he's in the lineup right now and expanding his role."
Quenneville showed on the road trip he is not afraid to use his fourth line in any situation, even matching them up against some of the top lines in the league.
Bollig appreciates that opportunity.
"The more you play with someone, the more you're going to become comfortable and familiar with the way they play," Bollig said. "That helps the more they keep you together and the more you play and the more minutes he's giving us and giving us bigger responsibilities.
"Taking defensive zone draws and playing against their top one or two lines, that's something we probably couldn't have asked for at the start of the season coming in as a fourth line. But it's great that it has gotten to this point, and we can only hope to build on that."
Quenneville doesn't sound like a coach who is going to stop playing Kruger, Bollig and Smith anytime soon.
"That line is playing really well right now," Quenneville said. "You can talk about each individual bringing something to the table, but collectively they've been rock solid defensively. Offensively they've been chipping in game in and game out."
Bollig still brings a physical presence but isn't considered just a fighter anymore.
"He still has a presence what he can bring to our team, but at the same time getting that role out of him and becoming that type of player really puts him in a different place with us," Quenneville said.
•Follow Tim's hockey reports on Twitter @TimSassone and check out his Between the Circles blog at dailyherald.com.