Connor Murphy

Connor Murphy believes he'll be ready for Blackhawks' home opener

Connor Murphy believes he'll be ready for Blackhawks' home opener

The Blackhawks were without two key defensemen in Friday's season opener in Prague, with Calvin de Haan and Connor Murphy each being held out because of groin injuries. Dennis Gilbert and Slater Koekkoek made up the third pairing.

But Gilbert being assigned to the AHL's Rockford IceHogs over the weekend suggests that at least one of the two injured defensemen will be ready to go for Thursday's home opener against the San Jose Sharks. And Murphy appears to be more likely than de Haan.

The Blackhawks returned to practice on Monday in Chicago and Murphy skated on the third pairing with Koekkoek without any restrictions. Murphy is hopeful that he will make his season debut on Thursday, but that decision hasn't been determined yet.

"I feel really good," Murphy said. "I felt good the last practice we had and today all day was good, so I'm happy with that. ... I haven't talked to the trainers yet, but I feel good so hopefully I can play."

De Haan was held out of practice on Monday as he continues to receive groin treatment, but there hasn't necessarily been a setback. He practiced with the team overseas and the Blackhawks believe a few days off the ice could help him clear that final hurdle.

"He is close, we just can't get over that last hump," coach Jeremy Colliton. "So rest a couple days off here, kind of part of the plan to give him that last push. So we'll see."

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'It's crazy the amount of moves': Connor Murphy on Blackhawks offseason additions

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AP

'It's crazy the amount of moves': Connor Murphy on Blackhawks offseason additions

The second annual Chicago Pro Hockey League kicked off on Wednesday at Fifth Third Arena, featuring more than 80 professional hockey players from the NHL, AHL, ECHL, along with elite amateurs from various Division 1 colleges, junior teams and AAA programs. And for the first time, a women's division has been added.

Connor Murphy was among those who participated in Week 1, and he spent some time beforehand to talk about the Blackhawks' offseason moves so far and his excitement level going into the 2019-20 season.

"It’s been awesome," he said. "It’s crazy the amount of moves. It seems like every week there’s something and you open Instagram and see something pop up. It’s hard to see certain guys go that we’ve been teammates with the last couple of years, but we’ve gotten some experienced guys who are definitely big players in the league who can help us a lot I think."

Many of the moves GM Stan Bowman has made this summer is directly correlated with what went wrong last season, which included a leaky defense and 31st-ranked penalty kill. For example, trade acquisitions Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta are expected to play large roles on the penalty kill, as is free-agent signing Ryan Carpenter, who's also a faceoff specialist.

"I’m sure there are different parts management feel they needed to clean up a bit," Murphy said. "But I think some of that stuff, too, is just team play and things we maybe started to do a little bit better in the later part of the year that, hopefully when we have a full training camp under our belt with team and coaching staff that we get things more in order and have a hot start going over to Europe. There’s definitely things those guys can bring to the table that will affect our team in a big way. I’m sure we’ll see it pay off right away."

Murphy hasn't gotten a chance to meet some of the new additions yet, but he did get an opportunity to meet Robin Lehner in Chicago this week and that's a signing that sticks out as one that could be impactful immediately.

"He’s a great guy," Murphy said. "He’s big, so you love seeing big goalies. And to have two really experienced guys — [Cam Ward] had experience, too — and [Lehner] with the success and unbelievable year he had last year with the Islanders, is impressive. I’m a fan of his, so it’s nice to have him back there."

Perhaps the most important part of training camp and preseason will be getting everyone on the same page, whether the players were on the team last season or not. For the players that were here, they know exactly what to expect out of Jeremy Colliton and the way he wants to play. And for the new additions, it's about getting acclimited as quickly as possible so the Blackhawks can hit the ground running on Opening Day.

"Yeah, I think that’s important," Murphy said. "For the coaching staff in general, they mentioned a little bit last year at times that it’s nice to have that time to clean things up. It’s hard when they jump in, when you have games and only one day of practice in between each game. You don’t have a lot of time to work on little details. So that stuff came slower and this year, having that time to practice and all of camp is important to kind of get that message and get through the kinks in exhibition games. It’s nice to have everyone on the same page with new players coming in and new staff, for us all to come together right away and have that time."

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Blue line finding consistency with Murphy and Dahlstrom

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USA TODAY

Blue line finding consistency with Murphy and Dahlstrom

Hearing a pair of young defensemen say they “take pride in defending hard” and “being reliable defensively” must be music to the ears of Jeremy Colliton.

But it strikes a much nicer chord when the play of those defensemen on the ice matches the words coming out of their mouths.

Those words came from Connor Murphy and Carl Dalhstrom, the Blackhawks most consistent defensive pairing of late.

“Him and Murphy have done a great job playing hard minutes against really good players,” said Colliton. “I view it as a huge positive - the progression they’ve shown. I think they’re a big part of why we’ve been getting a lot more points lately.”

Murphy returned early in December after missing an extended period of time due to a back injury, while Dahlstrom missed making the team out of camp and later was recalled from Rockford. They’ve been paired together since Dahlstrom made his season debut on December 12th against the Penguins and there is no doubt that their consistency has paid dividends on the Blackhawks blue line.

“Connor is a great guy and an even better player. I really like playing with him,” said Dahlstrom. “I think both of our type of games really suit each other, really trying to break up plays early.”

As a team, the Blackhawks allowed 3.7 goals per game in their first 30 contests of the season. Since Murphy’s return, they have allowed 3.44 goals per game as a team. A lot of it has to do with better defensive play all around, as the team gets settled in with Colliton’s new systems. But Murphy and Dahlstrom have played a big part. In 16 games, Murphy has a +8 rating while Dahlstrom owns a +5 in his 14 games.

“It’s nice to take pride in playing defensive roles. I think I’ve had good chemistry with Dahlstrom and playing against some good forwards,” said Murphy after the Winter Classic. “We just take pride in defending hard.”

And while they may not be putting up the offensive stats like fellow defenseman Eric Gustafsson has been, Colliton has noticed their play on both ends of the ice.

“They’re competing hard, they’re winning battles, they’re willing to be physical, they get us out of [the] d-zone, and then those are the times you can potentially create offense,” said the 33-year old head coach. “That’s a huge benefit to our team.”

For Dahlstrom, getting a taste of the NHL last season helped him boost his confidence, knowing he can hang with the game’s best. Dahlstrom spent a majority of last season in Rockford under Colliton, and that familiarity has helped his transition this season as well.

“I know what he wants from me, what the whole coaching staff wants from me,” said Dahlstrom. “It’s nice to get the trust from the coaches to play against the top lines.”

Dahlstrom even went as far as claiming that he has an even greater comfort level in the NHL than he did playing in the AHL with the IceHogs.

“I don’t know why I seem to find a better level up here,” said Dahlstrom. “Obviously the players up here are better, and you’re playing with better players, but you’re also playing against better players. Really just focusing on defense and being reliable defensively might be a big key from me.”

And the Murphy-Dahlstrom pairing has been a big key in steadying the Blackhawks blue line…just like everyone predicted.