Though he is surrounded by much bigger stars, there might be no bigger enigma on the Blackhawks than Bryan Bickell. When he’s good he’s invaluable. When’s he bad he’s invisible. And nobody seems able to figure out what it is that makes him tick.
As a power forward on a team dominated by speed and skill, the 6-4, 223-pound Bickell is a commodity the Hawks desperately need. His net-front presence, his willingness to throw his weight around and his big shot are difference-making qualities. As much as anyone on the ice, he represents the randomness of hockey in general and the in the playoffs in particular — Bickell is overpaid and expendable until he isn’t. Then you can’t win without him.
Though Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa are more valuable, it’s hard to ignore the correlation between Bickell’s production and the Hawks’ postseason success. In Bickell’s 63 playoff games, the Hawks are 25-4 (.862) when he scores at least one point and 14-20 (.412) when he does not.
Bickell is as mercurial as they come. Most players will have better numbers when their team wins than when its loses, but the disparity for Bickell is stark: In 39 playoff victories with the Hawks, he has 18 goals, 32 points and is a plus-33; In 24 losses, he has two goals, four points and is a minus-13.
In the 2011 playoffs, Bickell ignited the Hawks’ comeback from a 3-0 deficit after he had missed Game 3 with an injury — with the Hawks on the brink of elimination, he scored the opening goal 1:43 into the game and was a plus-4 in a 7-2 victory. Bickell had a goal and assist as the Hawks won Games 5 and 6 to even the series. The injury, though, forced Bickell to miss Game 7. The Hawks lost 2-1 in overtime.
The Bickell Effect is particularly intriguing with the Hawks preparing to face the Minnesota Wild in the second round of the playoffs. In 23 games against the Wild the past three seasons, Bickell has scored 15 goals, 20 points and is a plus-11. That includes two stellar playoff performances — seven goals and 10 points in 11 games as the Hawks beat the Wild in five games in 2013 and six games in 2014.
It’s no big surprise that Bickell has no explanation for his success against the Wild. Like everything else with him, things just happen. “I have to look at the video to see how I scored those goals to see what I need to do to be successful against this team,” Bickell said. “It’s a new season, a new series. Things change. Different players step up.”
As it turns out, Bickell scores in a variety of ways against the Wild. But the key to most of his success is his ability to provide net-front presence that obstructs the goaltender’s vision and leads to the “greasy” goals most teams need against the defensive-minded Wild.
“They protect the middle really well and keep us to the outside,” Bickell said. “With [Devan] Dubnyk in the net — he’s a 6-foot-5-plus goalie who can see over [anybody]. We need to get traffic and hopefully get opportunities that way.”
Though Andrew Shaw has the gumption to mix it up in front of the net, there’s no substitute for Bickell’s size.
“It’s a factor,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Getting to the net against this team is what makes him so effective. We’re still going to need a net-front presence. No matter who you are, you have to get there and there’s a willingness to try to get there. Let’s make sure we’re persevering in that area because that could be the difference.”
Bickell’s impact in front of the net was underscored in the Nashville series. It was the first time in 10 playoff series as a regular that Bickell did not score a goal. Yet he still made a difference — Brent Seabrook’s game-winning goal in triple overtime in Game 4 went through Bickell’s screen in front; as did Patrick Kane’s game-tying goal in Game 6. Bickell did not attempt a shot in Game 6, yet was a plus-2 in a clinching game.
“He did a lot of good things,” Quenneville said. “That physical presence was there. He didn’t have the production that we’ve seen in the playoffs in the past, but I think … with Bick, he brings other elements that make a contribution to your game.
“He was close around the net and he was a factor in the overtime goal. It was pretty big [in Game 6] with his net-front presence. That’s what we’re looking for.”
It appears that Quenneville will give Bickell an even greater opportunity to score by putting him on the No. 2 line with Kane and Brad Richards.
“They want me to play the same,” Bickell said. “They don’t want me to get out of my comfort zone and be physical by going to the net and shooting the puck. The first series was getting to the net. I didn’t shoot the puck enough [nine attempts, four on goal in six games]. Maybe they want me to get more opportunities to [do] that. We just have to keep moving.”