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Ian Mitchell gets a chance to show Lightning reflexes

The Blackhawks rookie defenseman was benched for two games after a tough series against the Lightning earlier in March. The rematches Thursday night and Saturday will be an opportunity to see how well he learns. “It’s great timing,” he said.

Blackhawks rookie defenseman Ian Mitchell (51) has two goals and four points with a minus-7 differential in 28 games this season.
Blackhawks rookie defenseman Ian Mitchell (51) has two goals and four points with a minus-7 differential in 28 games this season.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty

Blackhawks defenseman Nikita Zadorov likes playing with Ian Mitchell because he doesn’t feel like he’s carrying the rookie on his back.

“He’s a first-year guy, but on the ice, it doesn’t feel like you’re playing with a first-year guy,” Zadorov said. “He gets in the battle. He gets in scrums. He tries to close quick in the D-zone. Plays hard. He has a good offensive IQ. He can make plays. It’s enjoyable.”

But inevitably, there are times when Mitchell looks like a rookie, and it was no surprise that his inexperience was exposed against the best team in the NHL. Mitchell’s tough series against the Lightning in the first week of March earned him his first NHL demotion — a healthy scratch in the two-game series against the Stars.

“Definitely humbling,” Mitchell, 22, said. “What I learned is that when things start to go bad, you can’t let it snowball, and you’ve got to find a way to stop it and get it moving in the other direction. Just try to make a simple play that would just start to get that good feeling for me — whether it’s a breakout pass or having a good gap, forcing a dump. Just trying not to let the errors compound, and all of a sudden you’re way in over your head and can’t get out of it.”

Mitchell has generally acquitted himself well in his first NHL season as coach Jeremy Colliton has allowed him to learn the hard way. That has happened often for the 2017 second-round draft pick but usually against top-tier competition. He has two goals and four assists and a minus-7 differential in 28 games with an average ice time of 15:27.

Even Colliton’s benching of Mitchell was more management than punishment. And Mitchell took advantage of the two-game break to literally see the game from a different perspective in the press box, focusing on veterans Duncan Keith, Connor Murphy and Calvin de Haan.

“It allowed me to see that there’s a lot more time out there than maybe it feels like at times,” Mitchell said. “When you sit from above, it seems a lot easier than it is at ice level.

“I watched a lot of Murphy, Duncan and Calvin just to see how they played. That was really helpful for me just to see their poise and their presence with the puck. That’s something that was kind of getting away from me against Tampa Bay.

“Jeremy put it best — he said I went from hunting to being the hunted. For most of the year, I’ve been getting really comfortable, but that break was really good for me to reset. I think I’ve rebounded well the last two games [against the Panthers].”

Mitchell already looks like a keeper. Now the Hawks will see how well he learns and adjusts to the elite level of play in the NHL — and perhaps get an indication of just how high Mitchell’s ceiling is.

The Hawks (14-11-5) begin a two-game series against the Lightning on Thursday night at Amalie Arena in Tampa. It’s a perfect opportunity for Mitchell to show he’s learning from his rookie mistakes. The second game is Saturday, also at Amalie Arena.

“It’s great timing,” Mitchell said. “I’ve always set high goals, and I want to be the best player I can be. To get right out there against arguably the best team is really exciting, and it’s a great chance for me to improve and get to that top level. So I’m really excited for it.”