The last time the Blackhawks faced the Devils, Erik Gustafsson saw nothing but the bench in the third period.
A month later, Gustafsson has taken the message — be as good in the defensive zone as in the offensive zone — to heart. Entering Thursday’s rematch against New Jersey, he’s riding one of his best stretches of the season.
“I took it the right way and I came back and I wanted to show the coaches that you can’t bench me again,” he said. “After that game, I’ve felt confident and I’ve felt like I’m doing something on the ice all the time, so it’s a good feeling.”
In the eight games immediately following that Jan. 14 disaster in Newark, Gustafsson averaged 7.1 blocked shots per 60 minutes, and the Blackhawks conceded 58 shot attempts and 33 scoring chances against per 60 minutes with Gustafsson on the ice.
Those statistics all indicated significant improvement over the 16-game stretch leading up to the New Jersey trip, during which time the 26-year-old Swedish defenseman averaged just 4.4 blocked shots per 60 minutes, and the Hawks conceded 63 shots attempts and 36 scoring chances against.
Tuesday’s trip to Boston was Gustafsson’s first poor statistical outing since the Jan. 14 benching, but he did score on a well-placed snipe from the shot, and coach Jeremy Colliton — who has been hard on Gustafsson all season — said he actually viewed it as one of the blueliner’s better nights.
“He’s had some good games, and then the two games before Boston maybe a little bit of a dip, but I thought he was good against in Boston, he was one of our better defensemen,” Colliton said. “The game in Edmonton (on Feb. 5) I thought was maybe his best game of the year at 5-on-5, and we want him to find that level more often.”
Gustafsson said he’s worked closely with the coaching staff, watching video and practicing hard, to get more aggressive in his own end.
That has indeed translated into in-game scenarios, but the former fourth-round pick isn’t thinking about it then.
“If I think about it too much on the ice, I think I’m going to play worse,” he said. “It’s just feeling that I’ve got to be aggressive when they have the puck in our own zone and move my feet, and it’s just a confidence thing, too.”
The former fourth-round pick’s offensive contributions haven’t slowed as a result, either.
He’s recorded four goals and two assists in his last six games to up his season point total to 36, ranking 16th among all league defensemen. And he’s helped quarterback a red-hot Chicago power play, which has risen to 8th in the NHL by operating at a 36 percent clip since mid-December.
It’s that kind of effective three-zone play that not only has kept Gustafsson in the lineup every period since that Jan. 14 benching, but also caught the eye of team leaders.
“He’s been pretty aggressive and not giving guys much room,” Jonathan Toews said Thursday. “And, for the most part, he’s still bringing the offense. He’s been making a lot of great plays every night.”