Blackhawks defenseman Erik Gustafsson viewed his two-year contract extension, which he signed last March, as his last shot at making it in the NHL.
With the weight of his $1.2 million cap hit on his shoulders this season, Gustafsson wanted to show fans and himself that he deserved it.
“Of course, I want to prove [I earned it this season],” Gustafsson said. “I also wanted to prove to myself that I can play in this league and I can play for this team here. . . . You see what people are saying, but it just goes in and out very quickly in my head. So it’s nothing I care about, but I wanted to prove to myself that I can play in this league.”
Well, he has done just that.
Entering the high-stakes game Sunday against the Avalanche at the United Center, Gustafsson was tied for second among NHL defensemen in goals (16) with the Flames’ Mark Giordano and the Penguins’ Kris Letang. They trailed only Maple Leafs blue-liner Morgan Rielly, who had 20.
If you would’ve told him a year ago he’d be where he’s at now, Gustafsson wouldn’t have believed it.
“Not goals; in points, maybe,” said Gustafsson, whose career-high three-game goal streak ended Sunday. “I haven’t scored many goals in my career. . . . Last year, I scored five goals. It was the most in my career, and that was pretty big for me, but now 16 is kind of insane.”
And Gustafsson isn’t done.
“I think I have more in me,” he said.
That’s exactly what coach Jeremy Colliton wants to hear as the Hawks embark on the last two weeks of the regular season.
“He’s playing well, coming through for us offensively,” Colliton said. “He’s one of those guys who can transition outside the D-zone and create those rush chances we kind of thrive off of, so hopefully it continues.”
With 53 points, Gustafsson — who only had 30 points over parts of two seasons before this season — leads Hawks defensemen in points and goals by a big margin. The next-highest-scoring D-men are Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who have six and five goals, respectively. Keith is second in points with 37.
“I just felt like I’ve played more consistently and been better with the puck,” said Gustafsson, who was the 93rd overall pick in the 2012 draft. “I can still be better in my own zone, but I feel more confident in my own zone lately.”
Gustafsson said he hasn’t changed his game-day routine or done anything that would account for the uptick in scoring. Honestly, he can’t explain it.
“I don’t know what it is, but I haven’t changed anything,” Gustafsson said. “I just try to shoot as much as I can. . . . It’s just kind of assists have been there, but not goals. I don’t know what happened this year, but I’m not complaining. I’ll take that.”