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Brandon Pirri has one week to impress the Hawks

Nashville Predators v Chicago Blackhawks

Nashville Predators v Chicago Blackhawks

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Updated: October 25, 2013 6:22AM



PITTSBURGH — Brandon Pirri believes his time is now — that he’s NHL-ready, that he can be the Blackhawks’ answer at second-line center, that his record in Rockford speaks for itself. So he’s not worried that the lower-body injury that kept him out of the preseason until Monday night has left him with too deep a hole to climb out of and staring at another season opener in the minors.

“I’ve been here three years,” Pirri said before tallying an assist against the Penguins. “I think they know what I can do.”

He’s right. And the Hawks are still plenty high on the 22-year-old who led the AHL in scoring last season and has seven NHL games under his belt. But the Hawks also know what Michal Handzus can do.

And all Handzus did was play a major role in winning the Stanley Cup.

So when the Hawks open the season next Tuesday against the Capitals, Handzus — who, like Pirri, has been dealing with a minor lower-body injury throughout camp — is likely to be back between Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa on the second line, regardless of whether he even plays in the preseason finale Saturday.

“We’re hopeful that’s going to be the case,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Good chance.”

It’s not how this camp was supposed to go. Back in July, Quenneville said Handzus would start the season as a role player, likely shuttling in and out of the lineup on the fourth line. The initial hope was that Pirri, whom general manager Stan Bowman repeatedly mentioned as next in line after trading away Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik to free up roster spots, would step into that role. Then Quenneville gave winger Brandon Saad a look at center to open camp.

But Pirri got hurt, and the Saad experiment didn’t pan out. That leaves Handzus as the best — and safest — bet. At the very least, he’s keeping the spot warm until Pirri can take it from him.

Quenneville said Monday that there were five players competing for three spots. With Jimmy Hayes and Ben Smith seeming like locks at this point, that leaves three guys competing for one spot — and Quenneville said he’s not opposed to keeping an eighth defenseman instead of an extra forward. He wouldn’t say if Pirri was still in the mix after missing so much time.

“We don’t expect him out there flying around like he would be if he was in top game shape,” Quenneville said. “[But] I don’t know if anything’s inevitable. Sometimes things change quickly.”

Pirri’s going to do his best this week to change Quenneville’s mind. He has been skating with Handzus and four other Hawks who’ve been held out of games and practices. And even in the wake of Sunday’s official end of the Saad experiment, it has been a friendly battle.

“As a younger guy, you don’t want to talk too much trash,” Pirri said with a smile. “But it’s healthy competition throughout this organization, and everybody wants to win. . . . There are a lot of guys trying to make this hockey club. I’m just excited for the opportunity [Monday night], and I just have to make the most of it.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkLazerus



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