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While there was some renewed hope and optimism surrounding the Chicago Blackhawks heading into the 2023-24 NHL season, the expectations should have been tempered. This team is still in the infancy stages of a complete tear-down and rebuild. Yes, Connor Bedard speeds up that process, but most of the players that will form the core of the next contending team are still in the amateur ranks or aren’t even with the organization yet.
The Blackhawks were feeling good after a 4-1 win at the Toronto Maple Leafs but have since lost to the Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights, and Boston Bruins by a combined score of 12-3.
“I’m tired,” a very disappointed head coach, Luke Richardson, said after Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to the Bruins. “One year is enough of ‘we’re a hard-working team.’ We want to push for more this year. I think we start with good intentions, but the other teams – not outwork us, work ethic-wise, but the hardness of the work, like physical one-on-one battles. We’ve got to work on that in practice. This is how you’ve got to play every shift in every game.”
The veterans in the locker room echoed their frustrations following this rugged stretch of games, but they aren’t using their competition as an excuse.
“You see the schedule at the start of the season, and you know what to expect coming in,” said forward Corey Perry. “Yeah, you can say it’s been tough. A lot of the games, for the most part, we’ve been in. It’s just that one mistake, and the game’s over.”
Defenseman Jarred Tinordi had the same line of thought on Tuesday night but was encouraged that the Blackhawks are hanging with the top teams in the NHL. They just need to find that extra gear.
“I think we have some lapses in our play, especially in these last two games, where the other teams have been able to capitalize on. We’re playing good teams right now, and that’s what good teams do. We have stretches where we’re playing good hockey. And then we have one or two shifts or a five-minute lull in our game that end up costing us.”
Richardson promised a hard practice after Tuesday’s game. He gave the team Wednesday off but told them to expect a “high compete, high level, skating practice.” The team responded with intensity from start to finish.
“We took a couple of drills that maybe aren’t like the look of a game situation, like the one battle drill,” said Richardson. “It’s certainly nice and tight together, but it gets them used to playing and making high-pressure decisions and quick, you know, instances, and that sometimes happens all over the ice.”
The players met the media in the locker room, more out of breath than usual and with extra fog on their visors. After putting in their work, the team was in good spirits and very talkative. They certainly aren’t buying into the tough schedule narrative.
Nick Foligno heard Richardson’s comments and agreed with what he had to say. He played with the Bruins the last two seasons, so he knows that hard work in practice translates to success on the ice.
“That’s the standard we have to get to and understand in this room,” he said. “Luke shouldn’t have to say it. But I know we’re a younger team where it’s got almost to be second nature here. That’s just the bare minimum – to compete and put your nose over the puck, the hard areas of the game. That’s where success is in this league. I think guys need to understand that, and we need to do a better job of making sure we understand that.”
“But I think the message was clear today and how we need to play. A lot of his is just will and getting on the same page. You can do all the Xs and Os you want, but if you’re not willing to pay a price on the wall, or in front of the net, or getting guys out of the front of your net, it’s hard to win in this league.”
Foligno was hopeful that the young guys got an understanding of that level and that they need to maintain, not just on the practice ice but in the games, too. He added that sending a message like this amid a stretch playing against championship-caliber teams has value.
Connor Bedard got the message and called today the best practice of the season. This is not surprising when you see the rookie’s work ethic and desire to be the best player humanly possible.
“That was a lot of fun,” he admitted. “We’re competing, but we’re having fun. It’s like a game. You’ve got to battle. You’ve got to battle hard. So, it’s good.”
Bedard took Richardson’s message to heart and said his post-game comments were right.
“He’s a great coach, and we all have so much respect for him. So, whenever he talks, we listen. We’ve got to get the motivation to set that bar despite the caliber of the guys we’ve been going up against. You’ve to raise that bar of expectations and have high standards.”
It certainly appears that the locker room has received the message and is ready to buy in. They are not using this brutal schedule as an excuse, but this start makes it hard to gauge exactly where this team is. Friday’s rematch against Vegas makes the Blackhawks the first team in NHL history to play four straight games against an undefeated team.
There isn’t a reprieve coming any time soon, either. After Monday’s game at the Arizona Coyotes, the Blackhawks return home to play the Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils on back-to-back nights. Then it’s off to the Sunshine State for games at the Tampa Bay Lightning and Panthers before returning home for another tilt with the Bolts.
The start of a new season is tough for any team, but when you factor in all the new faces and young players on this roster and the quality of opponents, the Blackhawks have an even harder time finding their identity. One thing is clear after today: they won’t stop working on it.
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