NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Connor Murphy roared around the ice at full speed during the Blackhawks’ practice Friday, participating fully in 5-on-4 drills and everything else.
But Murphy has been skating and practicing for quite some time now. What he’s really looking forward to is finally playing a game again after 24 days and 11 games out of the lineup.
“You get through the conditioning part probably a week or so ago, getting back cleared in the gym, and then starting to skate individually,” he said. “Once you start practicing with the team, it’s more about timing stuff and feeling more comfortable with other guys around and pushing on you.”
The Hawks are expected to activate Murphy from long-term injured reserve Saturday and insert him into the lineup against the Predators. Although coach Jeremy Colliton wouldn’t completely commit to that Friday, the front office’s decision to send down Adam Boqvist on Thursday makes it all but certain.
If the 26-year-old defenseman hadn’t been practicing for so long already, though, the Hawks would probably be a bit reluctant for him to return prematurely, given his struggles health-wise early in the last two seasons. He missed the first two months of 2018-19 with a back issue, then suffered two groin injuries this season.
“It’s frustrating, yeah, especially just back-to-back years missing time,” he said. “Luckily this one wasn’t as long, but it felt really long with the guys being gone on a lot of road games. But it’s just another challenge and an opportunity to come back and not be fazed by the injury.”
Saturday’s game will presumably be Murphy’s seventh appearance of the season, and he was playing likely the best hockey of his career in the first six.
He had an equal-or-better scoring chance differential in five of the six while handling big minutes on the top pair with Duncan Keith. He recorded at least two hits and two shots on goal in each of the first five, too, before leaving during the second period against Vegas on Oct. 22 and being placed on long-term injured reserve the next day.
He’s hoping that he’ll be able to carry over that high-quality performance upon his return, despite the nearly month-long interruption.
“I’d like to think I can play well,” he said. “You always want to have an optimistic view, and I just try to get back into those same routines and same mentality going into each game.”
Whether Murphy will be reunited with Keith, though, is uncertain. Erik Gustafsson was originally Keith’s partner in the season opener, and only because of Gustafsson’s rough start did Murphy later find himself in that role. But Gustafsson has rediscovered his confidence and returned to the top pair.
Beyond the Gustafsson variable, Colliton also implied he won’t re-create the Murphy-Keith shutdown pair Saturday, because he doesn’t want to concentrate his best defensive defensemen together for a road game, when he can’t play matchups.
“You’d like to have some flexibility,” Colliton said. “Can’t just be one pair who can take a matchup, because you’re not always going to get it, and a lot of teams have multiple lines that you’re concerned about offensively.”
Colliton knows Murphy’s return will provide a substantial boost to his defensive unit, which is enduring more pressure than ever in the wake of Colliton’s offense-favoring strategy change.
“Obviously, tremendous defender,” Colliton said. “He’s physical, gets stops, helps us get out of D-zone, skates really well, too. Just another guy who can take a matchup, kill penalties for us. Really improves the depth back there.”