Brett Connolly ready to seize long-awaited opportunity with Blackhawks

Connolly, a 29-year-old veteran forward with 101 career NHL goals, was called up from the AHL on Sunday.

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Brett Connolly had been playing for the Rockford IceHogs this season until his Sunday call-up.

Todd Reicher/Rockford IceHogs

Brett Connolly, who was recalled by the Blackhawks on Sunday, was an out-of-place man in the AHL.

At age 29, with 194 points in 527 NHL games and a Stanley Cup ring at home, the well-traveled veteran was something of a unicorn among the Rockford IceHogs’ extremely young, prospect-loaded forward corps.

But when he was assigned there at the end of Hawks training camp — largely because the Hawks could knock $1.25 million off his outsized $3.5 million cap hit by doing so — he didn’t let himself sulk about his first demotion to the minor leagues in seven years.

“I’ve had some experience going down when maybe you think that you shouldn’t have,” he said Monday. “But I definitely was not going to be that guy that went down there. It’s not my personality; it’s not [how] I wanted to represent myself.

“I just wanted to go down there and work my ass off and get back up here and be a positive influence on those guys, and try to be the best player every night. I really feel that I put in 100% effort.”

Connolly also has “completely tried to forget about what happened last year,” when he couldn’t find a rhythm with the Panthers or Hawks and finished with just six points in 31 games while averaging 12:09 of ice time. After all, just one year before, he scored 19 goals and 33 points in 69 NHL games while averaging 14:30 of ice time.

He spent most of the fall as a staple alongside notable prospects Lukas Reichel and Alex Nylander on the IceHogs’ first line, and the unlikely trio thrived.

Before Nov. 27 and 28, when Reichel suffered a concussion right after Connolly suffered a leg injury, the 19-year-old German rookie had tallied 12 points in 13 games and the 29-year-old Canadian veteran 11 points in 15 games. Connolly said he “gained confidence playing with a really elite player like him.”

Reichel remains out, but Connolly returned for two more AHL games Friday and Saturday — recording a whopping eight shots on goal in the latter game — before his call-up.

Connolly had been waiting a while for it.

“For whatever reason, I wasn’t part of the [Hawks’] plan at the start,” he said. “I knew things were going to change, and I just had to stay positive, keep working and get ready for the next opportunity, -because things happen so fast in this game and people are watching every night. You just have to believe in yourself.”

With the Hawks’ game Monday against the Flames postponed, Connolly skated on a new fourth line with Ryan Carpenter and Josiah Slavin during a hastily arranged team practice.

Interim coach Derek King, who helped situate Connolly in Rockford at the start of the season, called him “one of the best players” on the IceHogs this season.

And Alex DeBrincat rightly praised the strongest aspect of Connolly’s game: his shooting. Connolly’s career 14.0% shooting percentage is legitimately elite. He’s tied for 12th among all active players with 500-plus appearances.

“He’s got an unbelievable shot,” DeBrincat said. “If you get him the puck, there’s a good chance the puck’s going to go in.”

Connolly isn’t going to make any goal promises. But he does believe he can capitalize on this chance to impact the Hawks at long last.

“[I’ve] been playing 20-24 minutes every single night, so my conditioning has never been better,” he said. “I’m excited, and I’m definitely ready to go.”

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