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Over the past few weeks, MacKenzie Entwistle has cemented himself into the Chicago Blackhawks lineup. He has only played two games in the American Hockey League (AHL) this season after 78 contests with the Rockford IceHogs the previous two.
Things were coming along nicely for the 22-year-old forward, but a bump in the road sent him to the press box for a pair of games against the Anaheim Ducks and Boston Bruins last week.
Before being a healthy scratch for two contests, Entwistle had just one goal and two points in his previous 16 games. Being on the ice for four goals against in less than nine minutes of ice time versus the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 6 landed him in street clothes for the next two games. He drew back into the lineup for Saturday night’s 6-3 victory at the Ottawa Senators.
“I didn’t think I played my greatest the game before, and they just said just keep working and keep working at it,” Entwistle admitted after Monday’s practice. “I did some video with them and went over some clips and learned from some of the mistakes I made, and I thought I had a pretty good game last game, so just look to keep going and have a good one next game.”
Head coach Derek King has faith in Entwistle. He should know exactly what he can bring to the ice as he watched him progress for two seasons behind the IceHogs’ bench.
“He’s played well,” said King. “I think he’s right where he should be. I’ve talked to him about his role, and his role is a third- or fourth-line type of player. And he’s got to find that niche. If he plays the way he has last game, he can find a permanent job in the NHL.”
Entwistle is one of many young players in the Blackhawks system who fill this role. Outside of top prospect Lukas Reichel, not many dynamic offensive prospects are making their way to the NHL. King was asked how a player like this can make himself stand out from his peers.
“Just the way you play the game, you play it the right way,” answered the Blackhawks’ bench boss. “He’s always going to have to have offense from junior, and even when I had him in the AHL, he was a power-play guy, penalty killer, he played 20 minutes a night. Then they come here and it’s like, OK, where are you going to get your minutes? What do you have to do to play in this league, and it’s not going to be the top two lines.
Entwistle has averaged 10:40 of ice time per game and has been used sparingly on the penalty kill. King trusts the young forward as he started 70.2 percent of shifts in the defensive zone.
“So, he has to find that, and he’s got to play the game the right way and be a hard-to-play-against type guy, bang some bodies, manage the puck well and get to the front of the net,” King said. “You’ve seen him score in front of the net, he’s got some pretty good hands. If he continues to keep building on that, he’s going to find a spot, whether it’s here or on other teams. He can play in this league.”
Entwistle has shown that he has no problem embracing the role of a bottom-six player. He has brought a level of physicality to his game. He dished out a career-high seven hits against the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 27. His 99 hits heading into Tuesday night’s rematch against the Bruins are fifth on the team and second among forwards, behind Ryan Carpenter’s 115. This is the sign of a young player understanding the role his team wants him to fill and embracing it.
“I’m a young player and there’s a lot of growing in my game,” Entwistle said. “I’ve said it the whole year: Trying to stay consistent is tough in this league. When you’re playing 8-10 minutes a night you’ve got to do something. Whether it’s hits, being good on the kill, faceoffs. It’s obviously nice to score and chip in offensively, but as a third-, fourth-line guy you want to be more of a role player. It’d be nice to get a couple points here and there but for me, just staying consistent and not taking it to heart. I’d rather the team win than me playing and I’m not playing my best.”
Not only did Entwistle say the right things after his benching, but he responded with a nice outing versus the Senators. He is on a line with Henrik Borgstrom and Philipp Kurashev, which could be an interesting combination if given some time to gel.
“I like him,” King said of Borgstrom. “I think there’s something there, but it’s more me being a little more consistent with him and keeping him in the lineup and keeping him on a steady shift and giving him some ice time. And that’s that trust factor, right? I’ve got to trust him, and he’s got to trust me.”
That line is made up of three forwards the Blackhawks need to figure out of they are worth keeping around for the rebuild or not. These next six weeks will go a long way towards finding that out.
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