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Richard Panik’s hat trick the latest proof he’s fitting in with Blackhawks

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A great start to the season has solidified Panik’s place as a contributor in the Hawks’ lineup.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Chicago Blackhawks David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Richard Panik is the Chicago Blackhawks’ leading scorer through three games. He had his first NHL hat trick Saturday against the Nashville Predators, highlighted by an incredible, spinning backhand goal on a power move toward the net.

It’s only a few games, but it’s fair to say that Panik is going to be a key figure in the Hawks’ plans this season. For a player who less than a year ago got dumped by a team on its way to the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, it’s been an incredible turnaround.

It wasn’t a big deal when the Chicago traded for Panik. The Maple Leafs sent him to the Hawks for Jeremy Morin, another fringe forward in his mid-20s. It felt like a trade that would soon be forgotten between two teams shipping out sputtering players.

However, it’s looking like the Hawks got the better of that trade. Panik isn’t quite a find on the magnitude of Artemi Panarin, but it’s looking like he’ll be a real contributor. That’s a clear step up from Morin, who is opening this season with the Tampa Bay Lightning’s AHL affiliate.

One of the things that Panik has consistently done well early in the season is drive play toward the net. His first goal of the year came on a rebound, and the score that completed his hat trick also saw him driving toward the goal before receiving a beautiful pass from Patrick Kane.

Now that the Hawks don’t have Andrew Shaw, one of the key players who used to play in that crowded area near the crease, Panik is stepping into that role. And with his 6’1, 208-pound frame, he’s looking pretty comfortable doing it. A big part of that is that he’s pretty skilled.

The second goal on Saturday in particular showed Panik at his best.

Receiving a pass off the boards, Panik carries the puck across the blue line. Knowing that his teammates are too far behind him to make a trailing play, he decides to go for the power move toward the goal on Predators defenseman Matt Carle, who hurries back to try to force Panik further outside and prevent a more simple finishing chance.

With Carle pinned between Panik and goaltender Marek Mazanec, Panik manages to spin all the way around to his backhand. Mazanec scrambles to try to re-position and take away the shot, but Panik is able to wrap it around and into the goal despite all the commotion.

This is, to be blunt, a pretty spectacular play. One that you generally wouldn’t expect from a winger whose career-high is 11 goals. And with Kane, Jonathan Toews and Artemi Panarin quiet to open the season, the Hawks certainly needed it.

Panik probably won’t keep scoring at anywhere near this pace, but he entered this season as one of the Hawks’ many question marks. Early on, it’s looking like the 25-year-old will be one of the bright spots this season.