The Blackhawks' 10-1 victory over the Penguins in Thursday's season opener was like a start-of-semester party at college. Everybody having a good time with no bad vibes anywhere.
But a moment in the third period at the United Center was akin to someone putting on a bad song or spilling a drink. Nick Schmaltz hunched over in pain and needed help getting back to the locker room because of an apparent knee injury.
It killed the buzz.
Coach Joel Quenneville squashed any fears after the game when he said Schmaltz would be fine – despite how bad the injury looked – and Schmaltz took the ice for practice Friday at Johnny's IceHouse West.
It's a good sign for the Hawks, considering how impressive Schmaltz looked centering Patrick Kane and Ryan Hartman. Contrast that with where Schmaltz was 12 months ago – a tentative forward who wasn't sure where he would fit or how he could use his playmaking ability.
"It was a pleasant surprise," Schmaltz said of the opener. "All the lines were playing really fast and we were playing good defensively and that led to a lot of chances. ... It's cool to see the chemistry click right away."
"Click" might be an understatement. The three accounted for 12 points, with Schmaltz netting two goals and one assist.
Schmaltz looks like a potential breakout player. After spending most of last season on a wing, he is at center, his more natural position.
Coming into training camp, Quenneville said the Hawks had Schmaltz pegged as a top-six forward, but they weren't sure about his abilities at center. He struggled on faceoffs last season and was 4 of 12 against the Penguins.
But when you see Schmaltz using his speed and stick as well as he did Thursday, it's hard to keep him from that center slot with Kane.
"It was a great option to have him knowing he could play wing," Quenneville said. "The chemistry that first time we saw them together was something. It was a great – I don't want to say discovery – but he looked like he wanted to play center and he wanted to play with Kaner."
Schmaltz said he entered camp determined to make it work at center.
"I love having the puck in the middle of the ice and love playing fast," he said. "(I worked on) getting stronger in the offseason, getting quicker, winning more puck battles and enabling our line and myself to have the puck more. We're at our best when we have the puck – making plays and holding on to it and generating a lot of chances."
Schmaltz's emergence at center gives the Hawks greater depth at the position and a viable third scoring line with Artem Anisimov, Patrick Sharp and rookie Alex DeBrincat.
And it keeps Kane – who put up career numbers playing with Anisimov and Artemi Panarin the last two seasons – on a dangerous line that can utilize his rare skills, such as the behind-the-back and spin-o-rama passes he made to set up goals Thursday.
"Hopefully we can continue that and play that style of game as much as we can," Schmaltz said.