Tough stretch run can help young Blackhawks prep for playoffs

Tough stretch run can help young Blackhawks prep for playoffs

Ryan Hartman was on the ice in the waning minutes of the Blackhawks' game against the Dallas Stars on Feb. 4, a rookie thrown into a critical situation after earning the extra responsibility.

Good thing, because Hartman's diving block of a Jamie Benn shot probably saved the Blackhawks two points. It certainly saved them a trip to overtime.

"Situations like that can only improve your game as you're going along, add that depth to our team," coach Joel Quenneville said. "We're going to need these kids to be playing in some crucial situations and applying it now, it's a good learning curve."

As good as this stretch run is for the Blackhawks overall, it's especially good for their young players. The hockey is that much more intense, that much more meaningful. Some teams are looking to improve their postseason seeding. Some teams are still fighting to get into the playoffs. Either way, the tests are plentiful and a good primer for young players for the postseason.

And that's fine with them.

"This time of the year has always been my favorite (since) coming up through juniors," Hartman said. "That's when the real teams show up, and that's when that playoff drive and that desperation comes for some teams that are fighting for playoffs spots. It's a fun time of year, and I think we're all ready for the challenge."

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Quenneville has given more responsibility to young players who have earned it. Hartman has gotten more — playing in late-game situations is part of that. Tanner Kero has, too.

"It's good for getting that experience and trying to get confidence in those big, tough games," Kero said. "You know how hard you have to work and the little things are so important, all throughout the game. That one play could cost you or could go in your net. You have to work hard every shift and can't take a shift off."

Dennis Rasmussen has gone from a bubble player to a consistent bottom-six player, be it on the wing or at center. Rasmussen wasn't here for the Blackhawks' postseason in 2016, but he could be here this time around. If so, these games mean a lot.

"If you want to be a team that wins in the end, you have to be a team that gets better every day — team and players, especially the young guys, the rookies," Rasmussen said. "I count myself as a young guy, and I feel I need to get better if we want to win it. That's the focus we have every practice and every game."

Since September, the Blackhawks have said they need everyone to contribute this season. That goes for the postseason, too. Who knows if all of them will be here once the playoffs start. But for those who are, the more they learn, the more responsibility they take on and the more they succeed, the better the overall team will be.

"We need them to improve and to be a part of it, playing in key situations," Quenneville said. "Their enthusiasm is healthy for our team as well. We're putting them in situations where the experience will be necessary."

Hawks Rewind: Game 4 of 2010 Western Conference Semifinals


Hawks Rewind: Game 4 of 2010 Western Conference Semifinals

Sunday night at 7 p.m. during another "Hawks Rewind," Blackhawks fans will be privy to another must re-watch.

Sunday's Hawks classic is 2010's Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Vancouver Canucks.

The Hawks took a 2-1 series lead after Dustin Byfuglien exploded on goalie Roberto Luongo and Vancouver with a hat trick and debilitating physicality in Game 3.

Game 4 of the series can be looked back at as the height of the Blackhawks-Canucks rivalry. 

Vancouver was looking to even the series in not just wins, but in physical play and scoring on home ice. Unfortunately for them, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and his team would find another gear.

Toews finished Game 4 with three power-play goals for the hat trick plus two assists to help the Hawks to a 7-4 victory and 3-1 series lead.

Chicago kept up the rough stuff, too. Byfuglien went hard to the net again and remained in Luongo's kitchen for long stretches, creating an effective screen to help the Hawks go 4-for-8 on the power play. He also drew consecutive cross-checking penalties from defenseman Shane O'Brien.

Patrick Sharp scored a power-play goal in the second period, and Thomas Kopecky and Dave Bolland added goals in the third. 

Antti Niemi made 26 saves, while Luongo stopped 27.

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How Scott Foster and David Ayres handled the spotlight differently

How Scott Foster and David Ayres handled the spotlight differently

Two years ago today, the unthinkable happened. Scott Foster, a 36-year-old accountant who played in a beer league and tended goal at Western Michigan University over ten years ago, was called upon by the Chicago Blackhawks.

Foster was the emergency backup goalie on March 29, 2018 when the Hawks were facing the Winnipeg Jets at the United Center. Anton Forsberg was slated to start in net for Chicago but suffered a pregame injury. 

Collin Delia made his NHL debut ahead of schedule and was having a solid outing until he was injured with 14:01 left in the third period with the Hawks up 6-2. Foster was forced to suit up and head out onto the ice past a laughing Joel Quenneville and a delightfully stunned Blackhawks bench.

To put the finishing touches on his Cinderella story, Foster stopped all seven shots he faced, including a Dustin Byfuglien slap shot. 

The emergency backup goalie drew chants from a sold-out United Center (who, somehow, collectively already knew his name), seemingly with every save.

“That’s something you’ll never forget. You understand what’s happening, and they’re going to have a lot of fun with it, so you might as well too," Foster told Blackhawks media in the dressing room after the game.

In addition to Delia's debut that night, Brent Seabrook played his 1,000th NHL game, and Dylan Sikura picked up two assists in his NHL debut.

After his night, Foster declined further interviews, wanting to go back to his normal life. Later that summer, he presented the Vezina trophy at the NHL Awards and made his first appearance at the Blackhawks Convention. Since then, he flies under the radar for the most part.

RELATED: "Blackhawks Talk" podcast: 1-on-1 with Scott Foster on 1-year anniversary 

Then, there's David Ayres, who was called upon as an EBUG a little over a month ago by the Carolina Hurricanes on the road against the Toronto Maple Leafs. 

Ayres, a 42-year-old Zamboni driver for the American Hockey League's Toronto Marlies, came into the game midway through the second period with Canes goalies Petr Mrazek and James Reimer being injured beforehand. 

The start of the game wasn't so magical for Ayres. He allowed two goals on the first two shots he faced. But he stuck with it and ended up saving eight of 10 shots over a 29-minute span across two periods, and put a shot on net in the Hurricanes' 6-3 win over the Maple Leafs, who Ayres had occasionally filled in for at practices. 

He became the oldest goalie in NHL history to win a regular season debut and the first EBUG to be credited with a win in an NHL game (Foster didn't play long enough). His stick was sent to the Hockey Hall of Fame. 

Ayres' wife, Sarah, live-tweeted his debut and, like Foster, his story was a media sensation. Unlike Foster, Ayres kept it going. 

His whirlwind media tour over the next few days included a stop in New York and a plethora of interviews, including NBC's “Today” show and a monologue bit on CBS’ "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert."

He signed autographs for fans at a Canes game, and Carolina sold Ayres t-shirt jerseys with the EBUG receiving royalties and a portion of the proceeds going to a kidney foundation. 

So which last line of defense handled their situation appropriately?

Why not both?

Foster lived a dream, too, but embraced who he really was and the life he really had. He still appreciates a close association with the Hawks, honoring more obligations with them and remaining an EBUG with the team.

Ayres, several years older than Foster, soaked it all in and Stretch-Armstronged his 15 minutes of fame to span several days. During that time, he also advocated for kidney transplants, being a kidney transplant survivor himself. 

Two different games. Two different goalies. Two different ways to handle the most unique situation in professional sports. And one correct outlook on how their stories unfolded before our eyes: Awesome. 

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