Jan Rutta knew that Florida’s Jared McCann was all over him as he chased a puck up the boards, but he didn’t know Connor Brickley was lining him up for a big hit until Brickley’s shoulder crashed into the side of his head. The other side of Rutta’s head banged into the glass, and Rutta was dazed and done for the night.
“It was maybe kind of like a ‘Welcome to the NHL hit,’ ” Rutta said with a laugh. “It was fast, and it was hard. It’s fine.”
Rutta missed his second consecutive game because of the apparent head injury he suffered in that hit, but he didn’t think it was a dirty play. The first-year defenseman returned to the ice for Sunday’s morning skate, as did Cody Franson, who suffered an upper-body injury that has now cost him four games. Both players are hopeful they can play Thursday in Dallas.
That is, of course, if there’s a spot in the lineup waiting for him. Coach Joel Quenneville has been quite happy with the play of Jordan Oesterle and Michal Kempny in their absence — Oesterle found himself on the second power-play unit, and Kempny scored a goal in Winnipeg — and he is usually loath to mess with a lineup that is working.
“We’ll see,” Quenneville said when asked if Rutta and Franson would automatically return to the lineup.
“That’s all part of the decisions at that time — performance and their health. But they’ll be good options as we get closer to making [that decision].”
Franson, who was injured on a cross-check from behind in the second period against the Sabres on Dec. 8, admitted that one of his first thoughts was that he might lose the spot he spent nearly a month waiting for at the start of the season. And with eight men competing for six spots, there is always a concern that players might rush back from injuries and put themselves in danger.
“That’s the hardest part,” Franson said. “When we first got the injury report back, we know [I was] going to miss the first one. I really wanted to try and push it. With the injury being what it is, it’s something [where] you have to give it time, do the day-by-day rehab, and hope for the best.”
Entering Sunday’s game against the Wild, the Hawks had a plus-11 goal differential in first periods and a plus-8 goal differential in third periods, but were being outscored 29-24 in second periods. And coach Joel Quenneville knows the numbers are an accurate representation of his team’s play in the middle 20 minutes.
“Not just a stat, a fact,” he said. “We seem to get in our own end, we don’t have the puck enough, puck management’s been poor, and [we’re] looking at ways to change that — trying to be more effective [and] start on time.”
Quenneville has been waiting for a complete, 60-minute performance from his team for weeks.
He got what he was looking for Sunday, as the Hawks blitzed the Wild with a 21-5 edge on shots in the second period and took a 2-0 lead on Patrick Kane’s second goal.
“We’re coming off some wins, but I still think there’s a 60-minute, complete game for us,” he said. “[In Winnipeg], we had 40 minutes of, ‘Jeez, we’re on the right track of getting that full 60.’ That’s the objective, that’s the motivation. Because when we play like that, with the puck and pressure and time and space, we’re so much more dangerous.”
After an exhausting run of 10 games in 18 days, including a rare stretch of five games in seven days, the Hawks suddenly have loads of time on their hands, with three games in a 13-day span, including the upcoming three-day Christmas break. Just as they are heating up, too.
Sunday’s game was the Hawks’ last at the United Center until Jan. 5.
Richard Panik was a healthy scratch for the third consecutive game after a 21-game goal drought. Panik had 22 goals and 22 assists last season.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.