Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning brought about a surprise appearance in the lineup, as Kris Versteeg took the place of the injured Bryan Bickell for the opening tilt of the series. Naturally, Second City Hockey's Kris Versteeg apologist, yours truly, was quite intrigued by this and paid particular attention to what the veteran forward brought to the ice on Wednesday.
My takeaway was similar to that of many across the Blackhawks' fanbase, in that Versteeg's performance, despite finding his way into the lineup at the last second, was actually quite impressive. We saw more of the Versteeg that was a pleasant surprise early in the season, as opposed to the one that we saw at the tail end of this year and last year's postseason.
The Kris Versteeg we saw early on was a complete transformation from his 2013-14 postseason counterpart. He made intelligent plays, laying off the dump and chase, practicing quality zone exits, and made effective decisions as to when he should pass or shoot. He didn't overdo it on the stickhandling and maintained a reasonable aggressiveness that kept him out of the penalty box.
When he came back from that wrist injury sustained in Winter Classic, he obviously wasn't the same. He reverted back to that form from the previous postseason and looked fatigued out on the ice. He was more susceptible to blowouts and generally made poor decisions with the puck. To hear that Versteeg was dealing with some sort of nagging injury would not be surprising, though any information relating to his health hasn't been noted at any point.
Nonetheless, we saw Versteeg step back out on the ice for just the second time since the first round against the Nashville Predators. And, for the most part, one has to like what we saw.
Versteeg was aggressive early on. He was all over the puck and made a couple of effective plays in the defensive zone. His CF% of 80 was the highest of anyone on the team. Of course, it helps that over 80 percent of his starts came in the offensive zone, and his ice time was also somewhat limited, logging 9:32 of ice time, but he did play progressively more as the game wore on. He played the type of controlled game that we've been wanting to see from him, and it's this version of Kris Versteeg that can be an effective player.
As far as whether or not that means he'll stick around beyond these playoffs, given the impending cap crunch, we don't know. The Hawks will need veteran forwards to make up the bottom six, and Versteeg's deal is a relative bargain if he's playing like this. But as far as the immediate future is concerned, another go in the lineup for Versteeg could be warranted after a strong showing in Game 1.
Bryan Bickell brings physicality, but has brought very little to the lineup on the stat sheet. And by very little, we can essentially conclude that he's been invisible on offense. Versteeg was aggressive up on the forecheck and made a few plays throughout the night where he actually stood out. As such, we should get to see him for at least another tilt in this series, if not making him a permanent replacement in the lineup for Bickell.
The long-term picture is a cloudy one for Kris Versteeg in Chicago, but he may have at least earned another shot in the Hawks' next game against the Lightning on Saturday night.
Randy Holt is a staff writer for Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.