Erik Gustafsson getting big opportunity with Blackhawks


Erik Gustafsson getting big opportunity with Blackhawks

When Erik Gustafsson was sent back to Rockford in mid-November, he knew he was in good standing with the Blackhawks.

He had showed great calm, defense and passing in his first stint in Chicago. Gustafsson impressed the Blackhawks, so there was no doubt they saw him in their future plans. Now it looks like Gustafsson’s not only part of the Blackhawks again, but could be a very big part of their defense moving forward.

Gustafsson, recalled by the Blackhawks on Dec. 28, looks to be getting more of a role with the team this time. When asked last week if Gustafsson could be an every-game player, coach Joel Quenneville said, “we’ll give him a shot.” Gustafsson played the last two games — the Blackhawks rotated veterans Michal Rozsival and Rob Scuderi in and out of the lineup — and was paired with Brent Seabrook for part of the game against Colorado.

The Blackhawks have liked what Gustafsson has done in both stints.

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“He made a real good impression initially with us, going back [to Rockford] and playing well, continuing to progress in his game. We think he can help us in a lot of ways,” Quenneville said. “He’s gotten significant minutes as he’s progressed but the two games you noticed him on the ice with his involvement, his play with the puck, with his gap and joining the rush as well as defending. That’s where we can make some progression. Offensively he adds a nice component to the back end.”

As for that pairing with Seabrook, Quenneville said, “we liked that tandem and hopefully there’s something there.”

Gustafsson didn’t sweat his reassignment in November. It was more of a numbers game than anything: Duncan Keith and Rozsival were coming off long-term injured reserve, leaving the Blackhawks with a glut of defensemen. But Gustafsson got good reviews from Quenneville and general manager Stan Bowman.

“They said good stuff about my game up here,” Gustafsson said. “They just told me I had to play a lot of minutes in Rockford, stay positive and work as hard as I could down there. I think I did that down there, tried to show them every day that I can come up again if someone’s hurt or anything.”

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“Anything” came at the end of December, when David Rundblad was placed on waivers. Whether the trust wasn’t there or if there was another reason, Rundblad didn’t crack the lineup much. So in came Gustafsson, who has also gotten time on the power play. That says a lot.

“You don’t put D on the power play if the coaches don’t trust you,” Gustafsson said. “I’m just glad to get the opportunity to play there. I hope the coaches trust me when they see me out there. I just want to show they can trust me.”

The Blackhawks have liked what they’ve seen from Gustafsson from the start. Earlier this season he didn’t fit due to numbers, both roster and salary cap. Now he does, and he’s fitting in with every situation he’s been given.

“There aren’t a lot of guys who get called up twice in their first year, so I’m glad to get the opportunity and glad to get the second callback,” Gustafsson said. “I’m just glad to be out there, to help the team as much as I can. I hope they see that, too.”

Four takeaways: Blackhawks suffer first regulation loss, but Corey Crawford looks sharp in season debut


Four takeaways: Blackhawks suffer first regulation loss, but Corey Crawford looks sharp in season debut

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-1 loss to the Arizona Coyotes at the United Center on Thursday:

1. Return of the Crow

The Blackhawks got their man back between the pipes after a 10-month layoff due to a concussion. And he looked like same old "Crow."

Crawford stopped 27 of 30 shots for a save percentage of .900. He faced 12 shots and eight scoring chances in the first period, but nothing too out of the ordinary. The biggest save he made was on a Michael Grabner breakaway in the third period, bailing out a turnover in the neutral zone.

"I think I felt better in the second and third," Crawford said. "But they really didn’t get that many opportunities early. It was nice. I think they flipped one in for the first one, so that was kind of good just to get in it and feel one early. We were close in that one all game and we created a lot. I thought [Antti] Raanta played really well.

"It was a tough, tough break at the end. Still felt I should have stopped that one. We were right there, we were creating a lot and gotta try to come up with that one. Just gotta forget about it and worry about the next game."

2. Alex DeBrincat, Jonathan Toews extend point streaks

The hot start continues for the Blackhawks' two leading scorers, both of whom assisted on Erik Gustafsson's goal in the second period to stretch their point streaks to six games. DeBrincat and Toews each have 10 points this season.

3. Overtime streak ends

The Blackhawks made history by forcing five straight overtime games to start the season, something no team has ever done in the four major sports (NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB). But they didn't have the comeback magic in them this time.

Entering Thursday, the Blackhawks were 1-0-1 when trailing after two periods. They were 5-28-2 last season for a win percentage of .143.

4. Familiar faces, new places

Five former Blackhawks took the ice for the Coyotes: Vinnie Hinostroza, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jordan Oesterle, Richard Panik and Antti Raanta.

It was Hjalmarsson's first trip back to Chicago since being traded in the 2017 offseason. He received a nice video tribute during the second TV timeout of the first period, which made him very emotional.

"I almost got emotional too seeing his reaction," Toews said. "He's one of those guys you'll never forget what he meant to this locker room. He was a quiet guy in the room but we all know how he played and put everyone else before himself. Pretty cool reaction from the fans too. I think we were all sad to see him leave this locker room, he did a lot of special things and was a massive part of our championship wins. Happy for him to get that reception. It's well-deserved and obviously we miss having him around."

As far as the game, Hjalmarsson logged a team-high 22:18 of ice time and blocked three shots. Oesterle registered a secondary assist on Arizona's first goal, which was its first 5-on-5 of the season.

Hinostroza, who was also part of the Marian Hossa trade over the summer, scored twice in his return to his hometown, beating Crawford with a wrist shot to make it 2-1 in the second period and an empty-netter in the third; his second goal turned out to be the game winner, the fourth of his career and first as a member of the Coyotes.

Panik recorded four shot attempts (three on goal). And Raanta improved to 16-0-3 in his career at the United Center, a remarkable record for any goaltender in any situation.

Niklas Hjalmarsson gets standing ovation from United Center crowd in Chicago return

Niklas Hjalmarsson gets standing ovation from United Center crowd in Chicago return

Niklas Hjalmarsson played for the Blackhawks for 10 years and won three Stanley Cups with the team so his return to the United Center was a big deal.

The defenseman, now with the Arizona Coyotes, made his return to Chicago in Thursday's game. The Blackhawks had a tribute video for him during the game and the crowd gave him a standing ovation after the video.

He was teary-eyed after getting the warm reception.

Hjalmarsson was traded by the Blackhawks to the Coyotes for Connor Murphy and Laurent Dauphin after the 2016-17 season. He played against the Blackhawks on Oct. 21 and again on Feb. 12 last season, but both games were in Arizona.

Injuries limited Hjalmarsson to 48 games last season and he missed Arizona's only trip to the United Center last season, which came in December.

Watch the video above to see Hjalmarsson's tribute and reaction.