NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Brad Richards did not want to disparage teammate Kris Versteeg when he was asked about Bryan Bickell’s impact upon replacing Versteeg on his line with Patrick Kane in the third period of Game 4 against the Nashville Predators.
“Steeger’s a great player, too,” Richards said.
But he also couldn’t ignore the obvious. Bickell makes a difference.
“It just seemed like Kaner and I got a lot more when he was out there, for whatever reason,” Richards said. “Maybe it was just the way the game was going. But we had a lot of looks after Bicks played with us. All three of us felt really good out there.
“He’s got that big body in front of the net that draws the screen and we score the [game-winning] goal. For whatever reason, I think it helped. Me and Kaner got more chances after that happened. We’ll see what [Quenneville] wants to do.”
Quenneville was expected to stick with Bickell on the Richards-Kane line in Game 5 at Bridgstone Arena. It’s a promotion that Bickell earned with sturdy, physical play in the first four games that Quenneville — always looking for a tweak that can strike gold — also noticed.
“He’s got a lot more confidence with the puck,” Quenneville said, when asked what he’s seeing in Bickell to make that line-combination change. “He’s moving faster. He makes an impact physically in games. He gets to the net, [is] disruptive — what we look for in that power forward.”
“It just seems like he’s a different guy when he’s playing at that level. He makes our team better and it’s one more weapon and one more good asset to put in making line combinations.”
Bickell is noted for his mediocre regular seasons and his productive postseasons. Prior to this season, he had scored 20 goals and 35 points with a plus-17 rating in 57 career playoff games. The Hawks are 16-2 when Bickell scores in the playoffs.
His success is largely a by-product on being on potent lines. Of the 16 goals Bickell has scored in the previous two postseasons, 12 of them have come with Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews and/or Kane on the ice.
Bickell doesn’t depend on playing with Kane, Toews or Hossa to be productive. He started his Conn Smythe-worthy 2013 postseason with three goals against the Wild — including an overtime game-winner in the opener — playing on a line with Andrew Shaw and Viktor Stalberg.
“It’s just a good feeling to hop over the boards at any moment — with [Kane, Toews or Hossa] or Shawzie or Sharpie,” Bickell said.
But, like anyone else, he shines most when he’s with world-class forwards like Toews, Kane and Hossa on a top-6 line.
“I think it helps me and gets me going,” Bickell said. “The more ice, you play better. He [Quenneville] likes to mix things up when things are not going well for players to get the best out of each of us. For me, to get the opportunity to play on that line [with Kane and Richards] — I just need to keep doing what I was doing on the bottom two lines — be physical, go to the net and just play hard.”
Even more than scoring, Bickell’s power-forward role becomes more valuable in the playoffs. “He seems to be more engaged physically and when he does that it enhances his overall game,” Quenneville said. “Sometimes pucks go in for him, but the quality’s probably not quite there yet.
“As the series progresses he becomes more noticeable as well. Our opponents know when he’s on the ice and some of the hits can make a difference as you go along.”
Bickell has every right to feel it’s just a matter of time before he scores. He has scored at least one goal in nine consecutive playoff series since becoming a regular in 2011. The Hawks are 16-2 in the playoffs when Bickell scores a goal.
“You want to score in every game in every series,” Bickell said, “but ideally you want to win the game. If it’s a big hit or a big blocked shot to prevent an opportunity [for the opponent] and help this team win — or a big goal. You do whatever it takes.”