ANAHEIM — When Erik Gustafsson came into training camp, he looked like a new man. His confidence was high, and both he and the Blackhawks expected him to take on a larger role this season, which he's done.
Gustafsson has seen his ice-time spike to 21:46 from the 18:33 it was a year ago and 15:27 during his rookie campaign. He's playing top-four minutes, is a regular on the power play and is put in any offensive situation — whether it's an offensive zone draw or late in the game when the Blackhawks are trailing — to maximize his best abilities. He's also tied among team defensemen with 11 points.
So when he was told he'd be a healthy scratch on Sunday against the Calgary Flames, Gustafsson was a little surprised by it.
"It was tough," he said after Wednesday's morning skate in Anaheim, where he will draw back into the lineup against the Ducks. "You want to play every game you can, but what are you going to do? You just go forward and try to help the team win and show that they maybe made a mistake and try to be better out there. I know I've struggled a little bit in our own zone the last four or five games, so I got to be better."
It perhaps made it a little more surprising considering it came one night after he logged a career-high 27:02 of ice time — because of a Duncan Keith ejection in the first period — and had a three-game point streak going into Nashville, along with three goals in his previous four games.
But he was on the ice for two of the Predators' three even-strength goals within the first 4:11 of that game, which magnified some mistakes in his own end, both systematically and being tougher to play against.
"We know he can make plays offensively, we know he can help us in that area," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "We just want him to really focus on gap, defending the rush hard, defending lines hard and then, of course, in his own end, around his net but he knows that. That's not a new conversation and I expect he'll respond."
When you're a healthy scratch, sometimes it can be beneficial to see the game from up above. You may notice things more when you're paying closer attention to the details that you maybe wouldn't see from ice level in the heat of the battle. Gustafsson made sure to take note of that.
"Stick together as a team," he said. "Now we're playing man-on-man, if one guy beats the other guy it's going to be tough for the other four guys out there. We got to stick together and if we don't have anything, just get closer to our net and protect our net. That's what I saw."
The Blackhawks don't want him to change anything he does on offense. That's his strength.
But shoring up how he plays away from the puck, particularly in the defensive zone, could lead to fewer scoring opportunities allowed, which has been a weak spot for not just Gustafsson but the Blackhawks as a whole.
"He told me today I have to have a better gap, tougher in front of our own net, help [Corey Crawford] a little bit," Gustafsson said of Colliton's message. "Obviously it's a new system we play, but I got to go out there and play harder and have better gap tonight and try to shoot some pucks and try to score a goal."Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Blackhawks easily on your device.