Hinostroza may be Chicago Blackhawks missing piece

Updated 1/7/2018 8:43 AM
  • Chicago Blackhawks left wing Vinnie Hinostroza, seen here scoring against New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist last Wednesday, has added a much needed spark to the top line.

    Chicago Blackhawks left wing Vinnie Hinostroza, seen here scoring against New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist last Wednesday, has added a much needed spark to the top line. Associated Press

Patrick Kane had a fine first half of the season for the Blackhawks.

As did fourth-liners Tommy Wingles, John Hayden and Lance Bouma.

One of the big reasons the Hawks have struggled this season, though, is because the top line of Jonathan Toews, Brandon Saad and Player X has failed to consistently produce on the scoresheet.

Maybe -- just maybe -- that's about to change.

After cycling through Richard Panik, Alex DeBrincat, Patrick Sharp, Ryan Hartman and even John Hayden, it appears coach Joel Quenneville has found the perfect sparkplug to his top line: Vinnie Hinostroza.

"He's taken advantage of working hard and adding an element to our team, which is energy and speed and quickness," Quenneville said after the Hawks practiced at the United Center in advance of their game against the Oilers on Sunday. "Getting up there on that top line, I commend him on how well he's done."

Hinostroza, who has played the last two games with Toews and Saad, began this campaign in Rockford despite a strong training camp. More levelheaded than he was just a year ago, Hinostroza went down, didn't pout and notched 9 goals with 13 assists in 23 games with the IceHogs.

Since returning to play his first game with the Hawks this season -- a 3-2 win over Buffalo on Dec. 8 -- Hinostroza has looked like a completely different player.

The speed is still there, yes. So is the tenacity, and the want and the will to win every puck battle.

But he's also making smarter decisions with the puck, getting into better scoring areas and finding teammates with better, crisper passes.

"I'm a different player than I was last year," Hinostroza said after scoring his third goal and adding 2 assists in the Hawks' 5-4 loss to Vegas on Friday. "Last year I was kind of shy and scared out there.

"This year, I have a lot more confidence and it's not too hard when you can go out there with one of the best players in the world (in Jonathan Toews). It's easy to step in and play with him and Saader."

Hinostroza had a taste of the top line last season, getting a nine-game look in the middle of the season. With nothing much happening, though, Quenneville used Nick Schmaltz and Richard Panik with Toews the majority of the time down the stretch.

The question now is, can Hinostroza stick with Toews and Saad? The Hawks desperately need another line besides Kane's to produce on a consistent basis. Toews went on record last year -- right before Schmaltz and Panik became his near permanent linemates, by the way -- that it would be nice if he could play with the same two wingers for more than two, three, five or even 10 games.

When that happened, guess what?

Toews had his best stretch, scoring 14 goals and recording 23 assists in the final 33 games.

Now Toews has goals in three straight and might just be heating up.

"When we get a few bounces and they go in, the rest of the night just seems a lot easier," Toews said Saturday. "We're not putting pressure on ourselves to score. We're just going out there and playing with the puck and keeping plays alive. Eventually things develop.

"Obviously Vinnie's been complementing the two of us really well and just going out there and making plays. The three of us … are feeling pretty confident right now."

Leaving them together -- even after a bad game or two -- might be the best thing Quenneville can do to keep their confidence up and help the Hawks' playoff chances in the second half.

• Follow John on Twitter @johndietzdh

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