The sound was unmistakable.
Long after a Thursday practice had finished at the Chicago Blackhawks’ practice facility, forward Patrick Sharp was on the ice by himself. He shot puck after puck at an empty net, ripping some into the net and others off the metal of the crossbar, even into the glass behind it -- a sound he'd rather not hear so much.
"Just a little practice," Sharp said a day later, after the Blackhawks' morning skate at United Center prior to Game 2 of a Western Conference Quarterfinal series with the Minnesota Wild on Friday (9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC). "I've done that a few times trying to get back to basics and fire some pucks. It's nice to just kind of be out there on the ice and work on some things you don't often get a chance to [practice]."
Watching him shoot, however, it was clear that wasn't just any old post-practice skills session for Sharp, who prides himself on being a sharpshooter on offense, pun intended.
Placed in front of the crease was a yellow bucket, directly in his shooting lane. Beside him was a pile of pucks. Gone was the smile that's taken up near permanent residence on a face that's become synonymous in Chicago with the Blackhawks, replaced by a look of intense focus and, yeah, frustration.
Sharp's regular season was a test of his character. It started being marred by too many hit crossbars to recount, and then came the lingering, painful upper-body injury stemming from a hard hit by then-Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ryan O'Byrne.
The injury cost him 20 games during the 48-game season, giving him a stat line of six goals and 14 assists after two straight seasons of scoring more than 30 goals. Sharp also tied Dustin Byfuglien for the team lead in goals (11) during the run to the 2010 Stanley Cup, adding 11 assists in that stretch.
Three years later, he finds himself working to get back to that form during a remarkable season for his team -- nearly half of which he sat out injured. Asked to sum up his season to this point, Sharp wasted no time answering.
"Really frustrating with the lockout, but I'm in the same boat as everybody else," he told NHL.com on Friday. "I thought the production was there early in the season and that wasn't necessarily playing my best hockey … but the points were there. I thought I was playing my best hockey the two weeks before I got injured, and whenever you deal with an injury like that, it's going to be something you've got to work hard to overcome and get back to that same spot where you were before."
Enter the stack of pucks, the bucket and those extra shots Thursday. He knows that aside from the fun of scoring goals, staying a viable threat in Chicago's top-six forward group is a key to the Blackhawks' quest to win another Cup.
"Right now it's not really about me," Sharp said. "It's about the team and fitting in and continuing this good streak we're on."
Statistics, however, suggest that it is a little about him.
Chicago wins quite a bit when Sharp is in the lineup playing opposite of right wing Patrick Kane on the second line. The Blackhawks never lost in regulation with Sharp during the regular season (25-0-3), and won again with him playing in Game 1 of this series against the Wild.
"At the end of the season he only played a couple games going into these playoffs, so I think that we're expecting him to get better as we go along here and be that player," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "He gives us some skill. He gives us some ability to create, be it off the rush or in [the offensive] zone. He's a threat to score when he's out there. [Our] power play should be improved. He's an experienced guy, veteran guy and [he's] got to lead us in some ways."
He's done it in the past by scoring goals. This season, when healthy, Sharp did it other ways -- which became apparent once he was sidelined. In the games he and forward Marian Hossa were out with injuries, Chicago struggled to dominate puck possession. As a result, the Blackhawks spent more time in their end.
Sharp also assisted on eight of Kane's goals during the team's unprecedented 24-game point streak to start the season, including four as the primary helper.
"He's a guy that wants to play hockey, loves hockey, knows a lot about the game, and I know how much it probably hurt him to be out watching and not be a part of [about] half the season," Kane said. "He's a big part of our lineup and he creates another threat. I'm sure once he gets going it's only going to help our team … but as long as he's healthy and back in our lineup, that's the most important thing."
Sharp's presence in the locker room also helps, especially with some young faces in key roles. He's not as much of a practical joker as he used to be, back when he was road roommates with former Blackhawks forward Adam Burish, but Sharp still finds ways to make his teammates laugh.
"He's a big leader on the team," Kane said. "He's a big part of this locker room and helps keep things intact around the room. That's pretty much how he's been since I got here. He's also a great friend, especially of mine, and I think there's a lot of people in here who can say that. He's a big part of our team and we'll need him."