CHICAGO -- Joel Quenneville will not just hand a prime lineup spot to talented rookie Brandon Pirri.
Instead, he wants the 22-year old center to earn one for the Chicago Blackhawks, who are searching for a long-term answer in the middle of their second line. The process is ongoing for Pirri, who led the American Hockey League in points last season, but he's starting to make a case for himself while playing fourth-line minutes for the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Backed by a goal and assist from Pirri, the Blackhawks got back on the winning track Saturday night by defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1 at United Center.
"The puck's just finding my stick right now, so it's a lot of fun," Pirri, the game's No.1 star, said. "I'm just trying to do the little things right."
Bryan Bickell and Michael Kostka also scored for Chicago (5-1-2), which is 5-0-1 against Eastern Conference teams. Corey Crawford (19 saves) picked up the win in net for the Blackhawks, who welcomed back former center Dave Bolland for the first time in an opposing uniform.
A couple of years ago, some in the Blackhawks organization viewed Pirri as a potential replacement for Bolland as center of the third-line checking group that played a pivotal role in Chicago's 2010 championship. Pirri saw himself differently but eventually added more defense to his game after playing three seasons in the AHL for Rockford.
Now he has a chance to play his way up the Blackhawks lineup, possibly into that second-line role between Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane. If Pirri is daydreaming about the possibility, it's hard to tell.
"[I] can't control that stuff," he said. "If I play my game and keep getting these bounces, things will happen."
Odds are it will take more time and patience from Pirri than two good games, but even Quenneville said the opportunity to advance is based in reality.
"I think that's basically the plan, work his way up knowing that we feel he can be that type of guy that can play top minutes with top guys," Quenneville said. "The other part [defensively], [is] working his way up through that part of it."
So far, it hasn't been an issue, including this game, which was dominated by defense in the first period. Early on, the most entertaining part of the game was the pregame.
Commemorating the Hockey Fights Cancer effort, the Blackhawks wore special jerseys during warm-ups that will be auctioned for charity, and six local children were honored for their individual battles with various forms of cancer. Among them was Jack O'Donoghue, who performed the ceremonial puck drop between Bolland and Kane prior to the Canadian and U.S. anthems.
Bolland, who was traded to Toronto after scoring the goal that clinched the 2013 Stanley Cup, got a brief video tribute midway through the first period. The gritty two-way center played seven seasons with the Blackhawks and helped bring two Stanley Cup titles to Chicago.
"It was always a great organization and great fans and they were always great to me," Bolland said. "For sure they're a good team. When you play that kind of team, they play hard, they keep the puck, chip it in, and they make plays. I know when you're playing against them, it's a little different now. I think as a result we got better in this room and we can work off it."
Other than the side stories, the first period was uneventful. Each team earned two power plays and couldn't score, and went into the first intermission 0-0 with Chicago leading 9-3 in shots.
It stayed that way until Bickell finally pumped some life into the building and the game with his first goal of the season, 5:32 into the second. After collecting the rebound of his shot in traffic, he skated it around sprawled Jonathan Bernier (37 saves), in an arc, and tucked the puck inside the right post.
"That one was a nice one," Bickell said, smiling. "It's nice to get that first one. I didn't even really know I had that in me. I think [Quenneville] was losing it on the bench [wanting me to shoot]. I'll probably see it in video later."
It was a relief for Bickell, who signed a large contract extension to stay in Chicago during the offseason and had one assist in the first seven games. The lead, however, didn't last very long.
Nazem Kadri quickly tied it 1-1 on a power play at 7:03 of the second, making the Blackhawks pay for Duncan Keith's interference penalty. Kadri's shot, which he redirected after a pass by Joffrey Lupul, was the fourth of the game for the Maple Leafs, who put two on net at even strength to that point.
The stalemate didn't last long either.
Kostka, playing his second game for the Blackhawks after breaking into the NHL last season with Toronto, haunted his former team by putting Chicago back up 2-1 at 10:28 of the second. It was the first career goal for the 27-year old, coming off a shot from the top of the slot that weaved through traffic and snuck past Bernier, again giving the Blackhawks a needed jolt.
"It was pretty sweet to be able to get it against them," Kostka said. "I got the puck. Someone's got it. I told the guys before the game, 'Look, I need a few guys fishing for this,' because guys have expected that I should have one by now, so I alerted them before. I was laughing because [Joakim Nordstrom] and Pirri said they were scrambling trying to get it."
Pirri picked up the primary assist before adding his second goal in as many games a little more than six minutes later to make it 3-1, Chicago. That one capped the Blackhawks' third power play with a goal seconds before Dion Phaneuf was set to leave the penalty box. Brandon Saad zipped a perfect feed toward the net and Pirri redirected it past Bernier.
The Blackhawks have struggled maintaining a few two-goal leads already this season and this was another chance to get it right.
They did. Crawford stopped all 11 shots he faced in the third and kept the Maple Leafs from getting any closer. The Blackhawks outshot Toronto 40-20 and looked more like the team that blew through the Western Conference last season.
"They have the puck a lot," Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. "They're hard guys to check, and the one thing that we didn't do was sustain a forecheck. Specifically in the second period, they were just flying out of their zone. For whatever reason, we weren't able to shut that down in the second period. They score two goals in the second and that was the hockey game."
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