Connor Bedard’s return brings excitement back to Blackhawks, United Center

CHICAGO — Connor Bedard’s first period back for the Chicago Blackhawks after missing nearly six weeks due to a fractured jaw couldn’t have gone any worse Thursday.

Fifteen seconds into it, Sidney Crosby, Bedard’s idol growing up, scored all alone at the net. It would be just the start of a nightmarish 20 minutes. When the period ended, Bedard had zero shot attempts, lost both of his faceoffs and had been on the ice for both of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ goals. The second goal sequence began with a turnover by him.

The whole period couldn’t have been further from what Bedard probably envisioned in his return when was skating away from his teammates over the past month. He wanted so badly to play again, but he had to wait for his jaw to heal enough to be cleared. That’s challenging for any NHLer, but especially an 18-year-old one who loves nothing more.

“Kind of just what I do all the time,” Bedard said Thursday. “I want to play games. I mean it’s frustrating watching and you can’t be out there with your guys and try and help them win and go to battle with them. It’s what I love to do. It’s all I really want. So it’s nice to be back.”

The reality of being out of game action for that long was a harsh one in that opening period. But then the reality of Bedard’s true ability reemerged and everything changed. Bedard was still Bedard.

In the second period, Bedard had the puck more. He shot more. He attempted five shots and put three on net. He was creating for himself and his teammates. He set up Philipp Kurashev for a goal. He was anticipating plays. The Penguins thought they had a breakaway after an expired penalty, but Bedard stepped in front of a pass and ceased that hope. He was driving the net and attacking defenders. He was fearless even with the bubble mask. He was feeling it. He was feeling like himself again. The 19,000-plus fans at the United Center, many of whom bought tickets on the day of the game, were getting what they came for.

And then Bedard repeated all of that in the third period. Nearly every shift that he was on the ice, the Blackhawks were doing something offensively positive. For anyone who has watched the Blackhawks the past month, you know how offensively challenged this group has been. Bedard was providing the opposite of that.

As the Blackhawks trailed 3-1 in the third period, Blackhawks coach Luke Richardson responded with more and more of Bedard. He had played 4:48 in the first period, 7:30 in the second and 8:59 in the third.

While the rest of the league was enduring the dog days of the season in the past few months and feeling the season wear on them, Bedard was resetting and getting fitter. He was ready for whatever Richardson wanted to give him Thursday.

“I think he’s really worked on his conditioning, and it showed tonight,” Richardson said. “I didn’t see any drop-off. I thought he was ready to go in the second half of that game. So when there were opportunities to get him out there a little bit more, I tried to do that. Their line was going well, especially in the second and third periods, so we tried to get them out there more because we needed them. We were chasing that game and we needed them to do it. They gave us some opportunities. Unfortunately, they didn’t go in.

“The one he tried to pass to Kurshy in the third, I’d like to see him shoot that. He shot the next one, but I don’t think he was in the best position. He was good. So, that’s a good start for him and hopefully we can build on that as a team and get better next game.”

As usual, Bedard wished he had done more. He finished with an assist, six shot attempts and four on net in 21:17 of ice time. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a good restart. One important hurdle for everyone watching was just Bedard taking hits and getting up again. He did that a few times.

“I’m not going to go in there scared,” Bedard said. “If it happens — I don’t know, you just don’t think about it, really. I’m confident in myself and my abilities. You can’t be nervous going out there. Be smart, for sure. I’m not a big guy, I’m smaller than pretty much everyone. Gotta have your head up and be ready. If a lot of these guys catch me, it’s not going to be good. Just be smart.”

Bedard isn’t going to fix the Blackhawks by himself. They still lost Thursday and remain in last place in the league. But overall the game was a good reminder that the Blackhawks are better with Bedard, his teammates are better with Bedard and hockey at the United Center is better with Bedard. He can give everyone something to look forward to over the Blackhawks’ final 28 games.

And, of course, Bedard is in a better place when he’s playing hockey. He’s just happy to be back doing that.

(Photo: Jamie Sabau / USA Today)

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