Even during strange homecoming, Blackhawks’ Connor Murphy enjoys return from hip injury

Murphy is finally back in the Hawks’ lineup during this series against the Blue Jackets, but isn’t able to visit his family in Columbus due to the NHL’s COVID-19 policies.

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Connor Murphy returned from a six-game injury absence just in time for a series back home in Columbus.

Connor Murphy returned from a six-game injury absence just in time for a series back home in Columbus.

Sam Hodde/AP

Connor Murphy finally returned to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, this week.

But with the NHL’s strict COVID-19 policies confining the Blackhawks to their hotel and the arena, he might as well have been on Saturn.

“Yeah, it’s funny,” Murphy said Wednesday. “It is a little weird not being able to see family or anyone. But we’re used to it at this point. Just [spend] a lot of time together in the hotel, just having our meals and practices and staying as healthy as we can.”

The son of longtime NHL defenseman Gord Murphy, Connor spent his youngest years in Florida and Georgia but grew into a promising hockey player — and learned how the NHL truly works — as a teenager in Columbus.

He was an avid Blue Jackets fan, collecting discarded sticks from Michael Peca and Trevor Letowski after Gord retired and became an assistant coach with the team.

But the Jackets have changed much since then, and so has Murphy. He and the rest of the Hawks now are rather tired of their temporary division rivals.

Thursday marked the Hawks’ sixth game against the Blue Jackets in a 13-game span — a frequency never seen during a normal season. Entering the day, Murphy already seemed frustrated with Jackets defenseman David Savard, who rode Patrick Kane hard into the boards Tuesday.

“We play teams enough [that] you’re able to remember what player it was who was a little dirty against your star player,” Murphy said. “You definitely don’t forget these things.”

After practicing for several days beforehand, Murphy returned Tuesday from the hip injury that cost him six games.

“It was frustrating having to miss that amount,” he said. “I didn’t think initially it was going to be like that.”

His right hip began feeling sore during the third period of the game Feb. 7 against the Stars, but he assumed it was just a bruise. After all, there wasn’t one specific hit or incident he could recall that might’ve caused it.

“Then we had a practice and I couldn’t really take a hard stride, and we knew it was something a little more,” he said. “The soreness feeling worse the next day after the game triggered [me] to have to sit out a little longer.”

But he didn’t appear impaired in his return. Reunited with defensive partner Nikita Zadorov, Murphy played 25:24 — second only to Duncan Keith — and performed well. The Hawks had the advantage in shot attempts (20-12) and scoring chances (7-5) during his ice time.

His health will be crucial for the Hawks. Coach Jeremy Colliton often was forced to dress seven defensemen to fill Murphy’s minutes.

Murphy has evolved into the Hawks’ linchpin on defense, even as the tide of youth at the position slowly undermines him, Keith, Zadorov and Calvin de Haan’s job security.

If the Hawks do make the playoffs, Murphy’s unheralded steadiness likely will be a key reason.

“He makes a lot of plays because he protects the puck and he puts the forechecker on his back and he advances it,” Colliton said Wednesday. “[It’s] nice to have that element on our breakouts: the ability to hold the puck and not necessarily throw it away.

“He’s a big part of our team. He was playing very well before he got hurt. We missed him when he was gone, but [it] definitely strengthens our group having him back.”

A visit home this week — typically a quick commute from downtown Columbus — would have provided a boost before Murphy powers the Hawks through their grueling upcoming schedule.

Alas, in 2021, that simply isn’t possible.

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