With just 25 games of NHL experience combined, it would be easy for both Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen to take some time to acclimate to the challenge of playing at the NHL level. No one would have faulted the rookies if they needed an adjustment period for the faster pace or if they struggled to keep up with the league's experienced and exceptionally-talented players.
Instead, both recent call-ups are playing important minutes for the Blackhawks and making big contributions during the team’s four-game winning streak.
In his second go-around in Chicago this year, Olsen has been paired with Duncan Keith on the Blackhawks’ blue line and has gotten the ice time that comes with that assignment. Head Coach Joel Quenneville says that he likes what he is seeing from the 2009 first-round draft pick.
“We like the way that he played when he first came up,” Quenneville said after practice Wednesday. “You really notice him. We feel that he can move and play in all situations. He can play against good players; it’s a big assignment right off the bat. Duncs can compliment him in certain areas, and I think they’re progressing. With time, he’s going to get better and better.”
“I’m getting a lot more confident,” says Olsen. “Playing with Duncan Keith has helped me out a lot. He’s a very vocal guy – he talks to me a lot on the ice and in the room, telling me where to go and what to do. I’m getting more comfortable in all situations as the games go on.”
Not even the youngest player on the Blackhawks’ blue line – that honor goes to Nick Leddy, two months Olsen’s junior – Quenneville says that giving the young defensemen quality minutes will only help with their development down the road.
“He and Nick Leddy getting top, quality ice time is impressive long-term organizationally,” Quenneville said.
Meanwhile on offense, forward Jimmy Hayes has taken his second chance at the top level and run with it. As one of the larger players on the roster, Hayes has made both an impact on the scoresheet, including the game-tying goal Tuesday against Detroit, and on the opposition, racking up 32 hits in just 16 NHL contests.
“Jimmy brings a lot of energy to the game; he’s a big guy who can skate, and has that youthful hunger,” said Andrew Brunette, who assisted on Hayes’ goal Tuesday. “I think that was pretty evident last night.”
Quenneville praised Hayes for how he has used his big frame, and has found ways to get into position for “dirty” goals in front of the opponent’s crease.
“Jimmy’s a big body and that’s very useful for us. He’s got a good stick, and he’s been better at getting into the puck area,” said Quenneville. “He controls and protects the puck well. He’s a big body and uses that to his advantage, and he got rewarded last night.”
While the stakes are high, both personally and for the team, both rookies seem to be handling the pressure with the poise of veterans. They don’t control how long their stay in Chicago will be; they only control how they perform on the ice.
“Patrick Sharp told me, ‘Play the game that you know how to play and be confident in it.’” said Hayes. “Every single night it’s a playoff environment. Every game I have to bring it and play hard and keep my energy. That’s what I’m supposed to bring to this team.”
“I just try and go into every day that I have to work as hard as I can,” Olsen said. “I would love to stay here, absolutely, but that’s not up to me so I just need to go out every night and try to play here. You never know if the next shift could be your last.”
Crawford keeping an even keel: Riding a season-high four-game winning streak into Thursday’s matchup with Dallas, netminder Corey Crawford is careful to keep an even keel. It should come as no surprise; the mild-mannered Crawford knows that he will likely play a big role in determining how far the Blackhawks will go this season.
“It’s the same as usual; you don’t want to get too high that you get complacent or too low that you can’t go out there and play,” he said Wednesday. “Every game from here on out is going to be huge; we have other teams chasing us and we want to chase the top teams. Just keep playing and keep our focus in the last few games.”
Prior to his current streak, Crawford was in the crease for five of the Blackhawks’ nine-game winless streak. The 27-year-old goaltender said that he worked with goaltending coach Stephane Waite to work on his positioning, and that change helped him defend the net more effectively. In the four games he has won, Crawford has surrendered just five goals, and his save percentage in that span is a stellar .959.
“I’ve been more in control. I move deeper to start the play and I can attack and be aggressive going forward instead of constantly going backwards,” Crawford explained. “Sometimes it’s tough to turn around a move backwards to make a save rather than having things in front of you.
“Before the streak, I think it was a little worse than usual where I was over-playing things. Now I just feel comfortable where I can stay back and be controlled, be patient, and if I need to I can move forward quickly.”
Hjalmarsson improving: For the fourth straight day, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson was on the ice and skated with the team. Both he and Quenneville hope that he could be ready to play as early as Thursday.
Hjalmarsson said that the time away from play has given him a chance to watch the defense better, and he is happy to see the team as a whole defending the net more effectively.
“It’s been great watching – they guys are really working hard,” he said. “The forwards are back-checking really hard, and the D is doing a great job getting the puck out of our zone. I think that’s the best defense we’ve played all season; it feels really good watching it and hopefully I can contribute to it.”