Many things have gone wrong for the Chicago Blackhawks this season regarding the roster, but one of the least-discussed issues has been the first line. Since the start of the season, the Blackhawks have had difficulty finding the “right” combination. It was a mix of Andreas Athanasiou, Max Domi, and Patrick Kane for a while. Athanasiou was ultimately switched out for players like Tyler Johnson and even Sam Lafferty, but no three players ever got genuine chemistry down. It took the team 37 games to finally figure out a first line that works, and oddly enough, it came at the expense of Kane as he has dealt with a lower-body injury and has missed the last three games.
The team’s experimental first line of Lukas Reichel-Domi-Kurashev was a success and should excite management and fans for the future. Even though Reichel was reassigned to the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League (AHL), there are plenty of positives to take away from the line’s debut.
First Line Has Given Blackhawks a New Identity
The first line is typically the most important in hockey. They provide the spark that trickles down to the rest of the team. In addition, the line is the most reliable for offense, so if the first line doesn’t work, it’s hard for the rest of the players to get in sync. Even as bad as the Blackhawks were last season, they had an excellent top line of Alex DeBrincat-Dylan Strome-Kane that was a threat every game. However, that hasn’t been the case this season. Although the top line of Athanasiou-Domi-Kane has had its moments, it was never really reliable, and it showed off the bat during the preseason. Furthermore, the line that has generated the most chances for (196) and goals for (7) at 5-on-5 has been the second line of Kurashev-Jonathan Toews-Taylor Raddysh in 24 games, which shows the deficiency on the top line.
Then comes the line of Reichel-Domi-Kurashev that started against the Arizona Coyotes on Jan. 6. At the time, Reichel was recalled from the IceHogs because of Kane’s injury, and it was time. He has been a point-per-game player in Rockford for the past two seasons, as he has 93 points in 88 AHL games and was ready for more NHL time. When Reichel, Domi, and Kurashev were put together against the Coyotes, the Blackhawks were on a five-game losing streak. Although they didn’t show up on the scoresheet, they were noticeable all night and were robbed of a few goals.
Next came the Calgary Flames, where Reichel scored his first NHL goal, Kurashev scored an insurance goal in the second period, and Domi secured the 4-3 win in overtime. All three players combined had six points on the night, and that win didn’t happen without them. Last came the Colorado Avalanche on Jan. 12; it was similar to the Arizona game, where that line was a bit unlucky but still a threat, and the Blackhawks won 3-2. According to Natural Stat Trick, in just three games together, the new-look first line is the ninth-best line combination on the team in chances for (41) and has the best goals-for/goals-against ratio at 5-on-5 with three goals for and one against. Granted, it’s a tiny sample size, but the fact that they have been in the Blackhawks’ top categories during that span says a lot.
This season, the Blackhawks’ identity has been focused on rebuilding and Kane. In October, head coach Luke Richardson mentioned, “It’s definitely going to be a committee. You can’t just rely on Patrick [Kane] to score or make fantastic plays every shift because he is going to be tightly watched by other teams. And we have to make sure we take some pressure off of him by doing our jobs and contributing on nights he’s going to get special attention.” (from ‘Blackhawks’ offense still missing as Chicago takes show to Milwaukee,’ The AthleticNHL, 10/02/2022) The Athletic also referred to Domi and Athanasiou deferring to Kane too much. That also goes for the rest of the team, as everyone looks to him to get the ball rolling. Unfortunately, he hasn’t had a great season, with only seven goals and 27 points in 37 games, so that strategy hasn’t been as effective.
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With Reichel, Domi, and Kurashev having fast success, they instilled confidence in themselves and their teammates that they can all contribute without always relying on Kane’s offense. Since he has been out, 14 different Blackhawks players have recorded at least a point. Heck, even goaltender Petr Mrazek recorded a secondary assist against Colorado. The first line has led the way and created a fun, new identity surrounding their individual strengths and talents instead of Kane’s.
Blackhawks’ First Line Provides the Right Skill Combination
One thing that stands out about the Reichel, Domi, and Kurashev pairing is that it appears the Blackhawks finally got the right combination of skill needed on the first line. When Kane, Domi, and Athanasiou played together, there were many similarities as Domi and Kane are both playmakers. Athanasiou brought the necessary speed to the line but needed a shoot-first, offensive weapon like DeBrincat. When Kane spoke about what has made the first line different from last year, he stated that when he played with Strome, he would drive to the net, which is what they are missing. Whereas when he plays with Athanasiou and Domi, they all want the puck on the outside, and that is where they struggle.
That is where Reichel comes in. He is notorious for crashing the net, and during his first shift against the Coyotes, he drove to the net for an excellent scoring chance. Domi provides the elite passing ability and veteran presence to get the puck to Reichel or Kurashev, and Kurashev provides pure offense by being able to score off the rush or being in the right place at the right time. All players are naturally described as “playmakers,” but their unique blend of offensive capabilities bodes well. Plus, you can’t teach speed. Reichel and Kurashev are some of the best and fastest skaters on the team. Having that extra threat on the top line makes it hard for the opposition to stop them when they get into the offensive zone. The Blackhawks have been trying to emphasize speed, so that line gives them everything they have been looking for and finally gives them a true scoring line option.
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It is disappointing that the first line couldn’t get an extended look beyond three games. Reichel proved he deserved more time, and although the first-line pairings would have been complicated knowing Kane’s spot on the line with his likely return against the Seattle Kraken on Jan. 14, the team could have made it work. They could have put Kane on the second line with Toews and Tyler Johnson, as that line could provide veteran scoring. However, it makes sense the team wants Reichel to continue to further his development in the AHL, and hopefully, this stint and the team’s recent performance will make for better chemistry throughout the lineup when Kane returns.
The Blackhawks have a lost season and are second-worst in the league, yet they are now on a three-game winning streak. This hot streak won’t change their fortunes, but why not have fun with it in a season like this? The first line was a lucky experiment due to the circumstances of Kane’s injury, but one that was needed for the long run. Now that the team knows it is a line worth looking at, something tells me this won’t be the last time Reichel, Domi, and Kurashev are seen together on the ice this season.
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Just a small-town girl with Midwestern charm, combined with a love of dogs, writing, frappuccinos, Chicago-isms, sports, and a whole lot of Blackhawks hockey. I have covered the Chicago Blackhawks since 2020 and am passionate about sharing in-depth analysis within the team and highlighting the fun because, after all, hockey is fun! You can quickly connect with me on Twitter: @brooke_lofo.