That first NHL game. Some players get just a few minutes’ worth of ice time in it. Some score their first goal. But no matter how that first game goes, all players seemed to have the same feeling entering it: nervousness.
“It didn’t kick in until going out there for warmups. Skating around and that 15-20 minutes between warmups, that was pretty nerve-wracking,” said Ryan Hartman, who made his debut against the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 13, 2014. “It’s just really wanting to get out there and get the nerves out was my focus. Just go out there and do something to try and make it seem like it’s hockey again.”
So will that be the same for Alex DeBrincat, one of two Blackhawks (along with defenseman Jan Rutta) who will make his NHL debut tonight? Maybe. But at least two members of the Blackhawks think the 19-year-old will handle his first NHL game as effortlessly as he handled everything this preseason.
Many eyes will be on DeBrincat when he and the Blackhawks face the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight. After starting camp with Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane, DeBrincat is expected to start at third-line right wing (with Artem Anisimov and Patrick Sharp) tonight. Sharp, who made his NHL debut with the Philadelphia Flyers at age 20, doesn’t see DeBrincat suffering from nerves too much.
“It looks like he’s playing junior hockey out there, and that’s a compliment,” Sharp said. “He’s confident with the puck, not deferring to any of his teammates or line mates just because they’re older or more experienced. He’s making the right plays. We saw it all through camp. There’s a bit of a jump, it’s Game 1, but I don’t anticipate any problems with Alex.”
Be it rookies or young players, a few current/former Blackhawks have gotten caught up in deferring to veteran line mates. Teuvo Teravainen showed hesitation when first aligned with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa two seasons ago. Hartman admitted it took him a few games to stop automatically doing the same thing. So far DeBrincat hasn’t shown much of that hesitation.
“Watching him the preseason games he looks pretty comfortable out there. He wants the puck and does a lot of good things when he gets it,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “It’s a great beginning for him and our organization. We’re looking forward to seeing how he handles it and we’re thinking he’ll be fine.”
If there are any nerves, players who have been there, done that before had advice.
“Just go out there and do something to try and make it seem like it’s hockey again. Just make plays,” Hartman said. “I know from experience, being a young guy, being your first time playing, you’re just trying not to make mistakes, trying not to mess up plays and trying to be responsible. But sometimes that hinders your skill level and some of the aspects of your game. Just go out there and play to your strengths and take it like it’s another hockey game.”