Coming off what might have been his worst game in the NHL and staring at a healthy scratch later in day, Blackhawks defenseman Jan Rutta still was able to crack a smile and a joke Monday. He tried in vain to find the right English word to describe his mindset before settling on an old professional athlete standby.
‘‘It is what it is,’’ he said. ‘‘I just take things easy. We had a few bad games, but that’s what’s good about the sport. In a week, we can go on a roll.’’
If and when that happens for Rutta, it won’t be with his usual partner, Gustav Forsling. The 21-year-old was sent down Sunday to Rockford to make room for center Artem Anisimov, giving the Hawks only seven defensemen for the first time this season. Forsling and Rutta had emerged as the Hawks’ new shutdown pairing during a stellar stretch in November, but their play dropped off a cliff in recent weeks.
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In the Hawks’ 7-3 loss Saturday, Rutta was on the ice for six of the Islanders’ goals; Forsling was on the ice for four. Forsling is still a big part of the Hawks’ future and undoubtedly will be back. But he needs the boost in confidence that can come from playing big minutes against lesser players in the American Hockey League.
Heck, it happened to Forsling just last season, when a good start ended in a demotion in February.
‘‘It was about confidence for me last year,’’ Forsling said earlier in the season. ‘‘It’s tough to explain. Sometimes you have it, sometimes you have to dig deep to find it.’’
Rutta is in a similar situation as a first-year player trying to make his way in the NHL. But he’s also 27 years old, which gives him a better perspective.
‘‘We started out great, [then] we had a few rough games, and maybe that hurt our confidence a bit,’’ Rutta said. ‘‘When it’s your first or second year in the league, maybe it’s harder to get the confidence back up. But you just stay positive, show up for work every day, work hard and hope for the best.’’
Coach Joel Quenneville said Forsling has made significant strides this season despite his demotion.
‘‘We expect him to get playing and get that confidence and more consistency in his game,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘We plan to have him back here, but his play’s going to dictate that.’’
Quenneville said goalie Corey Crawford is ‘‘getting better,’’ and Crawford was spotted in the United Center before the game. But Quenneville said there’s no change to his nonexistent timetable.
Calming the nerves
Despite playing 41 games with the Hawks during the 2015-16 season, defenseman Erik Gustafsson admitted to being nervous before his season debut against the Islanders. Setting up Patrick Kane’s goal 61 seconds into the game quickly alleviated that. He later added his first NHL goal.
‘‘When we got the goal at the start, I just felt great and felt like now I could just go out and play my game as I played in Rockford the whole year,’’ Gustafsson said. ‘‘[Brent Seabrook] helped me a lot, too. There’s a couple of new things in the team game, and he helped me a lot during the game and before the game, too. That helped because I was a little nervous. It had been a long time.’’
Of course, the trick now is living up to that start.
‘‘I told my dad I put a lot of pressure on myself now,’’ he said with a laugh. ‘‘Have to score two points every night.’’
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.