Defenseman Erik Gustafsson had a bad feeling about the Blackhawks’ game in Las Vegas two weeks ago.
He had a terrible afternoon nap, unable to keep his eyes closed. He arrived at T-Mobile Arena sleepy and couldn’t break out of the fog throughout pregame warmups.
Then the puck dropped, and he suddenly felt great.
Gustafsson used to believe he could tell at morning skate — or at least by warmups — if he had his legs going that day. Everyone on the Hawks roster has a passionate opinion about it one way or another.
Now, Gustafsson has been convinced otherwise.
“I thought I did before, but now [I’m not sure],” he said. “A couple times, you’re going to feel crappy or more tired or whatever it is. It’s just that when the puck drops, you have to think about the game and not how you feel.”
When winger Alex DeBrincat arrived in the NHL, he wasn’t accustomed to morning skates — his loaded Erie Otters junior team didn’t do them. He has since adjusted to the ritual, which coach Jeremy Colliton has kept for the Hawks even while other teams scale back. But DeBrincat still doesn’t read too much into it.
“Sometimes I feel really good in morning skate and feel good in the game, and sometimes I don’t feel good in morning skate and feel really good in the game,” DeBrincat said. “When you’re not feeling good in morning skate, maybe you’re going to do a little bit more to get yourself ready for the game, and vice versa. But you’ve got to stay consistent with what you do.”
Winger Andrew Shaw, meanwhile, is more a warmups believer.
“I wouldn’t know until probably warmup if [my legs] are going to be great,” Shaw said. “It’s just trying to find what gives you that opportunity to have good legs every night: stretching, cold tub, whatever your routine is, just keeping it the same.”
It’s often easier to tell how alert, quick and upbeat the team is overall than it is for one individual. After more than a decade in the NHL, forward Jonathan Toews has mastered reading the room.
“You can probably sense and feel those moments when maybe we’re a little bit unprepared, and you’ve got to try to identify when that is, when everyone needs a spark,” Toews said earlier this month in Pittsburgh, after the Hawks finally turned their skid around. “Especially a night when you maybe don’t feel it, you’ve got to create it and find ways mentally to get your energy going and get everyone on the same page.”
The responsibility to get the team going in the hours preceding puck drop — not just after it — rests on the whole team.
“If you feel like no one’s talking in the locker room, you have to maybe say something or speak up or make a joke to get the group going a little bit,” Gustafsson said.
Something clearly got Gustafsson going that night in Vegas. He scored his first goal of the season against the Knights.
So, yes, morning skates and warmups do matter, and they can indicate how a night will go. But the Hawks are careful not to get too invested.
“Sometimes you get caught overthinking how you feel, and get down that hill,” defenseman Olli Maatta said. “Or you get too confident, too loose when you feel good. You’ve just got to battle through it and go with it.”