Practice-happy Blackhawks used 3-day break to work on nuances
The Hawks have held practice on 13 of 22 possible days so far this season, including Sunday and Monday leading into Tuesday’s game.
Jeremy Colliton loves to practice.
That has been the case ever since he became the Blackhawks’ coach. But it has been especially noticeable this season, as the Hawks have found every possible window to squeeze practices into their condensed 56-game schedule.
“That’s something that we’re trying to get in as normal,” Colliton said recently. “You get opportunities in the schedule at different times, and you’ve got to take advantage of it. And then when the schedule’s more heavy, you back off — then there’s more optionals and more days off.”
With the Hawks’ game Saturday against the Hurricanes postponed, leaving the team with a three-day break between games — their longest of the season so far — the Hawks didn’t return to Chicago as they historically would have.
Instead, they practiced Sunday in Raleigh, North Carolina, practiced again Monday in Columbus, Ohio, then held an optional morning skate Tuesday in Columbus before the night game.
That extended break and 2½ consecutive practices provided a mental reset and a chance to go deeper on some of the nuances that they’ve struggled with lately. Colliton said he “liked the energy” throughout the sessions.
The Hawks’ power-play drills, previously done entirely within the offensive zone, were altered to force the power-play unit to start from their own end and successfully execute a zone entry. The extra time those entries took would normally be an inefficient use of practice time, but there was extra time in general to work with.
The team, of course, also practiced five-on-five plays, having scored only four even-strength goals in three games before the break.
“We worked on breakouts, worked on being clean on our retrievals and finding a way to get through the neutral zone with speed,” Colliton said. “[And we] talked about, in the offensive zone, finding a way to drive the puck deep and hold it, protect it.
“When we’ve struggled to create momentum and zone time, a lot of it is we’re not able to hold the puck in the offensive zone, protect it long enough to establish a shift down there. . . . We’d like to do a better job there.”
The practices on Sunday and Monday were the Hawks’ 19th and 20th of the season already, including training camp. Since the season opener, they’ve held practice on 13 of their 22 non-game days.
With so many rookies in the lineup — the Hawks have dressed at least seven every game recently — those additional reps are crucial to familiarize players with the Hawks’ systems.
“I actually don’t mind the schedule because you’re always ‘in it’ [and able to] get going right away at all times,” rookie forward Brandon Hagel said Tuesday. “It was nice to get a little bit of practice time, get a little break, get a little rest that maybe you won’t get down the stretch. . . . It’s definitely helped me out.”
Veterans have enjoyed it, too. Even for optional skates, the Hawks’ mid-20s clique of Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome, Dominik Kubalik and others are always certain to attend.
“Sometimes it’s good to get out there and get a sweat for 20, 25 minutes and have some fun out there,” Kubalik said.
“That’s what we did the last two practices. For me personally, sometimes it’s good to be on the ice: feel the puck, get a sweat a little bit and get ready for the game.”
As Colliton referenced, though, the Hawks’ practice opportunities will become less frequent soon.
From March 4 to April 12, they’re scheduled for 20 games in a 40-day span — as many game days as non-game days. And that’s before more inevitable COVID-19 postponements make the late-season slate even denser.
That’s why they’ve practiced in every possible window up to this point.