Blackhawks

A trying year behind him, Patrick Sharp 'happy, smiling every day'

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USA TODAY

A trying year behind him, Patrick Sharp 'happy, smiling every day'

Patrick Sharp raised his arms after connecting in an end-of-practice shootout drill at the University of Notre Dame. The season hasn’t started yet but the Blackhawks forward is already having a ball.

“I think you’ve been around long enough to know that when I’m acting like an idiot and having fun, that’s when I play my best. When I’m overthinking things and analyzing everything I don’t play good hockey. So that’s first and foremost, being mentally clear and happy and having fun,” Sharp said following Monday’s practice. “You want to be in a good place and I’m definitely there. I’m happy, smiling every day.”

Part of Sharp being in a happy place is being back with the Blackhawks. He had a lot of offers this offseason but Chicago was, “the No. 1 choice by far.” But it’s also about coming back after one of his most trying years on and off the ice and continuing a career that, when he underwent hip surgery last March, he wasn’t sure he’d have. So far, camp has been good. Sharp was once again one of the Blackhawks’ top fitness test finishers – “he looks like a freak of nature as far as working out and being in as good a shape as he is,” Patrick Kane said. So outside of the early aches and pains of camp, Sharp’s feeling good.

“Those first couple of days beat everybody up, starting with the fitness testing and then jumping right into the games. But the surgery is behind me now, I think. I think I’m over it and moving well and adjusting being back in Chicago,” he said. “There’s still a small transition when you switch teams but coming back to Chicago was definitely easier for me than leaving.”

Sharp’s first season in Dallas was good, especially with the Stars winning the West. But last year was difficult: the injury-riddled Stars had a disappointing campaign and Sharp struggled with concussion symptoms for a good part of the season. Also weighing heavily on Sharp was when his dad Ian, who was diagnosed with leukemia several years ago, was hospitalized when the disease worsened.

“I knew my dad was going through that in the hospital for six months and I wanted to play that much better to give him something to watch and maybe I put a little too much pressure on myself and got a little too upset when things didn’t go our way,” Sharp said. “There is some perspective there and it’s a lesson.”

Sharp was determined to come back following his hip surgery but the process was slow and he had to be patient. With an uncertain future, that wasn’t easy.

“It was just learning to bend at the waist again, learning to bend at the knees, getting that hip to hinge down and then graduating to things like walking, jogging and jumping and all that stuff. Nothing overly challenging. But the toughest part was just the day-to-day grind of staying with it, not knowing what the future would hold for my career,” he said. “But thankfully I’m over that.”

[MORE: Nick Schmaltz's confidence, hold on second-line center, continues to grow] 

His health no longer a question, one of the few that remains is where Sharp fits into the Blackhawks’ lineup. He could end up on the second line; coach Joel Quenneville put him there with Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane in Sunday’s practice. He could also be on the third line, where he’s played with Artem Anisimov and Ryan Hartman; Sharp set up Anisimov’s goal in the Blackhawks’ loss to Columbus on Saturday night. Sharp said working with Anisimov has been easy.

“Sometimes when you get a new line or player you haven’t played with before it takes a few shifts or games to figure out how you’re going to play together. He’s just a complete player and he makes the game easy out there for his wingers. He allows me to do things I like to do on the ice,” Sharp said. “I watched him play the last two years on that great line with [Artemi] Panarin and Kane, so I feel like I know his tendencies and where he likes to camp out and how he likes to play. A guy like that, anybody can play with him.”

Sharp is healthy again. Even better, his father is feeling good again, too – “he’s golfing again and has the nicest yard in Canada,” Sharp said, adding that his dad is thrilled he’s back in Chicago, too. Sharp knows he’s been through a lot of grueling seasons and will be careful coming off his surgery. But he’s back where he wanted to be, ready to adjust and is happy again.

“I am 35, turning 36 (in December), so that possesses different obstacles throughout an 82-game season. It’s easy right now when we haven’t gotten into it yet but over six, seven months you have to take care of yourself a little bit differently than when you were 25. But I’d like to think I’m enough of a professional to be able to do that,” Sharp said. “There are a lots of ups and downs in a season. I try not to get too high or low and just enjoy the game.”

Eight-defensemen rotation tricky, but Blackhawks understand juggling act

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USA TODAY

Eight-defensemen rotation tricky, but Blackhawks understand juggling act

For Jordan Oesterle, the wait really wasn’t a terrible thing.

Sure, he was used to playing more consistently in the past. But he knew with the Blackhawks carrying eight defensemen that several players, including him, would need to practice patience and understanding.

“It hasn’t been too long. It’s only been a week and a half so it’s not terrible,” said Oesterle on Thursday morning, a few hours before he made his Blackhawks debut against his former team, the Edmonton Oilers.

For the second consecutive season the Blackhawks are going with eight defensemen to start the season. In one way, it’s good: if anything goes awry, be it someone’s game or someone’s health, the depth is readily there.

But so are the challenges. It’s a juggling act, a delicate balance between making the right decisions and making sure a player understands that a scratch may be more about the rotation and not his individual game.

Communication, above all, is key.

“It’s not easy being the guys who are in or out, right on that bubble situation where you come in not knowing if you’re going to play. But as a staff we want to keep everyone involved,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “We know the depth of your defense is going to get challenged at some point during the year. We feel the eight guys who are here can play but that’s how we’ve always done it: We’ve always let guys know whether you’re in or out. Sometimes you have to be more patient than you’d like but handling it the right way, whether you’re a good pro or teammate, that can be healthy around the environment of your team.”

Based on all outward appearances, everyone has handled it well. Connor Murphy has been a healthy scratch twice – “I mean I just want to see the team win really...if we're winning and guys are playing well that's all that matter,” Murphy said after his first scratch.

Oesterle was a healthy scratch the first seven games. Michal Kempny, who Oesterle replaced, has been scratched the last two games. Cody Franson has also sat seven games. Franson, whose patience has been in place while awaiting contracts in his career, is practicing it again. But he’s appreciated the Blackhawks’ communication on it.

“This situation gets tough when they don’t say anything to you; you don’t know if it’s because of the way you’re playing, you don’t know if it’s something you did or what the situation is. The coaching staff has done a great job of being in our ear, letting us leave our work at the rink and not take it home with us,” Franson said. “That goes a long way in being able to stay positive and in the right mindset through it.”

After starting with eight defensemen last season the Blackhawks eventually went back to seven. Will they do that again this season? Maybe, but whoever gets sent down would most likely have to go through waivers. The Blackhawks reassigned Gustav Forsling last season to get back to seven defensemen and get Forsling more playing time. But this season Forsling and Jan Rutta have been dependable and have pretty much become the Blackhawks’ second pairing.

So for now, eight defensemen it shall be. Being part of the rotation isn’t always easy but so far players seem to get that it’s for the greater good.

“It’s one of those things where we’ve got eight quality guys. I think no matter who’s sitting on any given night, it might not necessary be due to how they’re playing or how they’re doing individually,” Franson said. “I think Q’s done a great job of managing that situation. That’s one of those things where it’s a great problem to have but it’s not an easy one to handle. So we’re all aware of what’s taking place right now and you just try to be as professional about it as you can.”

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 4-2 win over Coyotes: Puck don't lie

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 4-2 win over Coyotes: Puck don't lie

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-2 win over the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday night:
 
1. Surviving a crazy first period.

The Blackhawks committed four penalties in the opening frame within a 2:18 span, and escaped unscathed from it despite a pair of 5-on-3 opportunities for the Coyotes.

Of course, the only goal allowed in the period came from a fluke deflection off Jordan Oesterle's stick and slipped underneath Corey Crawford's five-hole.

Joel Quenneville likes to say the team that takes advantage of their 5-on-3 opportunities has a pretty good chance to win the game. It applied in this case, with the Blackhawks coming out victorious after surviving that stretch.

2. Power play comes alive early.

The Blackhawks got off on the right foot in an area that has been an issue for them this season, capitalizing on their first power play of the game 24 seconds into it when Richard Panik redirected a Jonathan Toews shot that tricked past Louis Domingue.

Good thing too, because it was the only man advantage they'd get. Well, excluding the power play they received with 17 seconds left in regulation when the game was already decided. 
 
3. Another controversial review in Arizona.

What's with it with controversial reviews in Arizona and the Blackhawks being on the wrong end of the call?

The Blackhawks appeared to have taken a 3-1 lead when Tommy Wingels converted on a penalty shot, but it was overturned after officials reviewed it and determined the Coyotes netminder got a stick on Wingels' initial shot. Replays didn't exactly show conclusive evidence, but the NHL released a statement proving otherwise:

Video review determined that Wingels shot the puck into the net after Arizona goaltender Louis Domingue made contact with the puck. According to Rule 24.2, "No goal can be scored on a rebound of any kind."

Shortly after, the Coyotes scored in the final minutes of the period to even up the score at 2-2 in a big turn of events at the time.
 
4. ... But puck don't lie.

The overturned penalty shot didn't matter in the end though, because the Blackhawks came away with the victory and Wingels ended up getting his first goal after all on an empty netter that iced the game.

It was Wingels' first goal as a member of his hometown team, and it was well deserved for a guy who was part of the fourth line that turned in arguably their best performance of the season.
 
5. Lance Bouma rewarded with game-winning goal.

Speaking of which, it was fitting that Bouma scored the game winner with 4:24 left in the third period because that trio of Bouma, Wingels and John Hayden was around the net for the majority of the night.

They combined for two goals and two assists, had eight attempts shot attempts (five on goal), eight of the team's 16 hits and four blocked shots.