Blackhawks rookies braced for their first Stanley Cup playoffs

Blackhawks rookie Nick Schmaltz never has faced a defensive-zone draw in the second overtime of a Stanley Cup playoff game. He never has made a daring pass through traffic that could lead to the winning goal or the losing turnover in a potential series-clincher. He never has had the puck on his stick with the Cup on the line.

But Schmaltz knows a thing or two about playing — and winning — under pressure. A year ago this week, he scored the winning goal with 56.8 seconds left in the NCAA national semifinals, sweeping in a rebound and propelling North Dakota to an eventual national championship.

It’s not the Stanley Cup playoffs, but it’s not nothing, either.

‘‘It helps, just knowing that you can make those plays when you need to,’’ Schmaltz said. ‘‘When crunch time comes around, you’re not nervous to make a play. I think I’ll be ready and not too nervous.’’

Nick Schmaltz (center) will be playing his first Stanley Cup playoff game on Thursday against the Nashville Predators. (AP Photo)

The Hawks are among the most tested teams in the league, with a staggering 1,463 career playoff games among players on the roster. But they won’t go anywhere this postseason without contributions from the four rookies in the lineup: Schmaltz on the top line, Ryan Hartman on the third line and John Hayden and Tanner Kero likely on the fourth line. And there’s no dipping a toe in the water when it comes to the playoffs; you get thrown right into the deep end.

‘‘We’ll need these guys to be important players, like they were most of the season,’’ coach Joel Quenneville said. ‘‘We’ve had a number of guys that have come in and played some key situations for us. . . . They’re going to get important ice time.’’

There’s nothing quite like the pressure and intensity of the Stanley Cup playoffs, but the Hawks’ rookies have been in big games before. Schmaltz played in the Frozen Four in each of his two seasons at North Dakota and twice played in the world juniors, posting eight points in seven games in a bronze-medal effort last season. Hartman had two goals and two assists in five games during the 2014 world juniors and played in 11 American Hockey League playoff games in Rockford. Kero played in nine playoff games in Rockford and had a goal and nine shots on goal in his one NCAA tournament game. Hayden played in the NCAA tournament after his sophomore and junior seasons at Yale.

‘‘It helps,’’ Hayden said. ‘‘Even the games I’ve been playing here, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been trying to have a playoff mentality every night.’’

The grind that awaits the rookies is new. College hockey ends in April. The IceHogs have won one playoff series in the last eight years. Schmaltz said it’s crazy that there might be two more months of hockey ahead, given how much the Hawks already have played. He said he feels great physically, but the mental wear and tear in the Stanley Cup playoffs is unlike anything he has faced.

‘‘It’s a lot different mentally,’’ Schmaltz said. ‘‘Last year [in college] was just one and done — if you lose, you’re out. This year it’s seven-game series, so it’s a lot more mental fatigue. You’ve got to be mentally sharp every game. . . . I’ll just try to do my best and follow the leaders we’ve got in here.’’

Schmaltz never will forget his game-winner in the Frozen Four last year, though he joked he ‘‘blacked out’’ during the raucous celebration. At this point, it’s the biggest goal of his career.

He hopes to replace it soon.

‘‘For sure,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t think it can be much bigger than a goal in a Stanley Cup playoff game that decides a series or swings the momentum your way. I’m hoping I can contribute.’’

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

 

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