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Bolland a key figure in Blackhawks' success

10/12/2011 10:15 AM

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A lot of teams might not worry all that much about an injury to the third-line center.

It's different for the Chicago Blackhawks, though, who often are asked about the health of 25-year old center Dave Bolland -- the sparkplug for an energizing, gritty checking line that usually makes life miserable for opposing star forwards.

When Bolland is healthy, everything lines up the right way for the Hawks. Their top two lines are loaded with highly skilled players and centered by stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Add Bolland's line -- capable of affecting the game at both ends of the ice -- and the Hawks really have something special.

Subtract Bolland from the middle of that third line, however, and it becomes a pretty big deal. The Hawks struggle to fill the void and it usually becomes a noticeable hole. That's why Bolland's undisclosed upper-body injury in the preseason drew so much attention.

He missed the rest of the exhibition schedule, plus the season opener in Dallas last Friday -- which resulted in a frustrating 2-1 loss. After Hawks coach Joel Quenneville announced the next day that Bolland was ready for the home opener, you almost could hear a collective exhale around the United Center.

"That line ... some nights, when they at least play even or outscore the opposition, it's a bonus for us,' Quenneville said.

When they don't -- typically when Bolland is hurt -- it's like a minus. That's why Quenneville and Bolland both were quick to allay fears about Bolland's most recent ailment being worse than they were saying. Both said it wasn't related to the back surgery Bolland had in 2010 or the concussion that kept him out for the stretch run last season plus the first three games of the playoffs.

Watching him return to the lineup last Saturday in a 5-2 win against the Dallas Stars, it was easy to see why there's always concern whenever he gets hurt. Bolland scored a pair of goals and did his usual pestering routine against the Stars' top forwards, helping the Hawks to another victory.

Bolland also seems to be a catalyst for linemates Michael Frolik and Bryan Bickell -- who don't seem to click as well with other centers.

"Any player can feel a difference when Bolly's in," said Toews said. "He's always doing a great job of playing against the other team's top line, and I think you realize how tough it is (without him)."

Bolland realizes it, too.

He was the lone Blackhawks player to spend most of the summer in Chicago, working hard to build strength and boost stamina in order to stay on the ice more.

"It's tough," Bolland said. "You wish you could go 82 games with no injury, but it's a grind. It's a tough game and injuries are going to come. You just have to battle back from them and get back into it as quick as you can ... (that's) key."

No need to remind the Blackhawks. They got Bolland back from the concussion last season in Game 4 of a first-round series against the Vancouver Canucks and promptly dug out of an 0-3 hole to force a seventh game.

Bolland, Bickell and Frolik harassed Vancouver's Sedin twins and practically shut them down. The Hawks' trio also added some missing offense, which is exactly the kind of two-way production Quenneville hopes to duplicate this season by keeping the line intact.

Frolik and Bickell, in particular, have grown since being placed with Bolland.

"You look at some players and they look like they're more offensively oriented, but some guys, when you give them a little bit of a defined responsibility of checking ... there's a lot of benefits that come with that," Quenneville said. "If there's a commitment there, you can take advantage of it."

Bickell and Frolik agree, pointing out that playing against opposing top lines often opens up better scoring chances for them.

"I enjoy it," the 6-foot-4, 233-pound Bickell said. "I know skill guys don't like getting hit and that's part of my game -- to throw my weight around, open up some ice for us and get them a little scared. To play against those (skill) guys, I know they're not going to hit back -- so it's good to play smart defensively in order to get our offensive chances."

It all starts with Bolland, who hounds puck carriers and does whatever it takes to be an agitator. He also transforms at the other end of the rink into a vastly underrated offensive player.

While in junior hockey, Bolland was an offensive force for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League -- twice topping 30 goals and finishing his OHL career in 2005-06 by scoring 57 goals and adding 73 assists in just 59 games.

"He's a really good player," said Frolik. "I like to play with somebody who can pass, do give-and-goes in the corner and cycle the puck ... and he knows how to pass. He's a skilled player. I'm looking forward to staying with him as long as I can."