It was just over a year ago that Nick Schmaltz was part of the North Dakota men’s hockey team that won the Frozen Four, the school’s first NCAA title in 16 seasons. On Thursday the quest for another championship begins, as Schmaltz get his first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“Not yet. Maybe a little bit on Thursday,” Schmaltz said with a grin. “I’m sure it’ll be a lot different pace, a lot different atmosphere and a lot more intense. But I’m excited for the challenge.”
The Blackhawks rookies have played their parts well during the team’s regular season, from handling top-line duties (Schmaltz) to filling Artem Anisimov’s void at second-line center (Tanner Kero) to moving up and down the lineup and still scoring 19 goals (Ryan Hartman). Still, the big test awaits them Thursday when the Blackhawks open their first-round series against the Nashville Predators. It’s as pressured a situation as they’ll feel, but they say they’re ready for it.
“It has that feeling of that first game of the year when you’ve been off for a bit and you’re ready to get going again,” Hartman said. “There’s a really positive vibe in here and we’re all really excited.”
Outside of John Hayden, most of the Blackhawks’ rookies have had a full season to adjust to the NHL: The schedule, the travel and most importantly, what was asked of them on the ice. They’ve been put in pressure situations often and have handled it all. Considering that, coach Joel Quenneville has confidence in them come Thursday’s puck drop.
[VIVID SEATS: Get your Blackhawks tickets right here!]
“I think they’ve seen in all their growing up and in different leagues they know there’s a different level each and every year when you get to the playoffs. You’re trying to win a Cup, you’re trying to win a championship and there’s always another level that everyone tries to get to,” Quenneville said. “There are different ways you can get them that message but individually, these guys are aware you have to ratchet it up a little bit. Young guys or old guys, we’re going to need everybody.”
As for that Frozen Four title, Schmaltz said he can definitely glean some things out of that run to help him now. Still, it’s not the same.
“That’ll help with the experience but this is different. It’s seven games and a lot more intensity. In college it’s just one and done. It’s going to be a long series and a hard battle,” Schmaltz said. “Every game’s going to be different so we have to be ready for whatever’s ahead of us.”
If the rookies have any questions or concerns, there are certainly enough veteran ears to bend in the Blackhawks’ locker room. Patrick Kane said while playoffs are a grander stage, considering how the rookies have handled everything else this season they should be fine now.
“There’s definitely another level, no doubt. But I think you saw that, whether it was from coming in at the beginning of the season, from wherever they were playing, colleges, CHL… from preseason games into the regular season, they made that jump pretty quickly. So I’m kind of hoping for them to do it again at the next level,” Kane said. “I think everyone knows how intense it is and how fast the game is, so sometimes these players that are young and come in have a little extra boost. So, kind of hoping to get that from them as well.”
The Blackhawks’ rookies have learned a lot this season. They’ve also contributed a lot. If the Blackhawks want to go far this postseason, they’ll need them to do both at the next level, too.