Kris Versteeg took a Brad Richards pass off the boards and wheeled around toward the net. Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, the 2012 Norris Trophy winner as the league’s best defensemen, stood between him and the crease. Versteeg faked going to his right, then swooped to his left, leaving Karlsson flat-footed and helpless as he slipped right by. A quick deke later, Versteeg had similarly undressed goaltender Craig Anderson and slipped the puck in on the far side for a goal.
It was a dazzling play on a pair of brilliant moves — two moves Versteeg might not have had the ability, nor the confidence, to make last season.
“He’s playing great,” Patrick Kane said. “He might be one of our best players right now.”
After posting a goal and an assist Tuesday night in Montreal (he originally was credited with two goals, but a scoring change gave his first one to Marcus Kruger, who appeared to deflect the puck in with his arm,) Versteeg now has three goals and two assists on the year. He’s looking more like the Versteeg of the more distant past and less like the Versteeg of the recent past, the shell of himself he was by the end of last season as he slogged his way through the long recovery from major knee surgery.
And with a source saying Patrick Sharp is expected to miss at least three to four weeks with an apparent knee injury — the Hawks had no official update on Wednesday, and won’t address his status until after Thursday’s practice — Versteeg could be primed to step into an even larger role to help fill the skill void.
“I thought he’s gotten better every single game since he’s returned from the injury,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “He’s got some quickness, sees plays, has a high-end IQ out there offensively. He can contribute [to the point] where it’s a threat no matter who he’s playing with.”
Kane said that Versteeg seems “excited” to be playing. “Relieved” could be another word for it. After spending his summer working out and finally putting behind him the knee injury he suffered in March of 2013, Versteeg had an outstanding preseason, and looked faster and more dangerous than he had last season.
Then, two days before the regular season started, he suffered a lower-body injury at a practice. He was “devastated,” and wondered if he was in for another season of struggles. But he wound up missing only four games, and it appears he hasn’t lost a step.
“I feel great,” he said. “I didn’t want to come back from what I had if I didn’t feel great. So the trainers did everything they can, the doctors, too, and now I’m skating just like I was in camp.”
While Versteeg feels and looks faster, he still doesn’t feel he’s all the way back to the level he was at before the knee injury, when he was a three-time 20-goal scorer. But his confidence is rising each time he steps on the ice.
“I think I’m still getting there,” he said. “I don’t know if [my confidence] is as high as it’s been all season, but every time you score a goal, it gets your juices flowing a little more, and gives you a little more confidence in your game. You’ve just got to try to carry as much confidence and momentum from game to game [as you can]. It’s pretty hard to do. You’ve just got to reset and get ready for the next one.”