Rested and re-energized Johnny Oduya to return for Blackhawks

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Johnny Oduya doesn’t need any sort of artificial motivation, or extra energy boost this time of year. This month, and the (he hopes) two or three that follow, are what hockey players spend the rest of the year waiting for.

“I don’t think anybody needs motivation; it’s the best time of year,” Oduya said following Thursday’s morning skate at Gila River Arena. “Everybody’s battling hard for points. It’s a fun time of year. Everybody’s at their best and the playoffs kind of start now, where you need to get going to have the momentum going in.”

The Blackhawks can only hope Oduya is at his best now. They need him to be. Entering Thursday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes, Oduya had two goals and three assists in 60 games. That’s nothing out of the ordinary for the defensive-minded Swede. But more alarming is the minus-9 next to his name, far below his previous two seasons of plus-12 and plus-11. His possession numbers have dropped, too, with the Hawks controlling just 49.8 percent of even-strength shot attempts with Oduya on the ice (down from 54.9 percent in 2013 and 53 percent last season).

Oduya, along with defensive partner Niklas Hjalmarsson, draw the toughest assignments among the Hawks pairings. So the team’s success often hinges on their play — especially when the offense is misfiring, as it has been lately. So that minus next to Oduya’s name is particularly glaring.

“I try to not look at stats as much,” Oduya said. “Obviously, you know [the minus] is there, but that’s something that can change in a hurry, in both ways. I’ve seen that in years before. For me, it’s basically playing good defense. And then if I can contribute offensively, it’s a bonus. I tend to look at my game overall, and how I feel and how I play and how I compete, and that’s the part where I want to be more consistent and improve on it.”

Just as his up-and-down season hits the home stretch, Oduya has spent the past 17 days recovering from an upper-body injury, missing six games.

It could wind up being a positive, as the 33-year-old got a chance to rest up for the playoff push.

“Not necessarily a good thing,” Oduya countered. “Anytime you’re hurt, it’s always something negative in general. But of course there’s an opportunity to kind of start over a little bit. You get away from the game for a week or two, and obviously you’re hungry to come back. That’s something that you want to use, and just stay positive throughout the process and get back in the best shape possible. [If there are] any good things or upside I can take out of this for the last two weeks, I think I’ve done that. And just the excitement to be back playing, I think that means a lot, too.

Oduya returns to the lineup Thursday night against the Coyotes, as Joel Quenneville held him out of Sunday’s game against the New York Rangers to take advantage of the three days off between games. The veteran defenseman will be back alongside his usual partner, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and facing the best offensive players the opponents have to offer.

It’s a crucial role, and one in which the Hawks need Oduya at his best in order to be successful. He was just starting to turn things around when he was injured.

“I think he was progressing [in the right] way as the year was going on,” Quenneville said. “He started ordinary, but I think his game’s gotten better as we’ve gone along.”

Now rested, recuperated and re-energized, Oduya hopes his best is yet to come.


Twitter: @marklazerus

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