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Blackhawks lose again to Panthers as focus shifts beyond this season

The Blackhawks are balancing ice time and giving their young players more experience during the 2021 season’s meaningless stretch run, which continued Saturday in a 5-4 loss.

The Blackhawks lost to the Panthers 5-4 on Saturday despite Alex DeBrincat’s two points.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Jeremy Colliton will follow a “Goldilocks” principle as he increases ice time for Blackhawks young players in the 2021 season’s final games.

“You want to try and give them just the right amount,” the Hawks coach said. “Not too little, not too much.”

In the Hawks’ 5-4 loss to the Panthers on Saturday, that meant the usual candidates still led the team in ice time, but the distribution was more even across the board.

For example, a power play unit of Kirby Dach, Brandon Hagel, Philipp Kurashev, Vinnie Hinostroza and Wyatt Kalynuk — a group with three rookies and an average age of 22.4 — scored the Hawks’ third goal.

“We certainly want the young guys to get in those situations, but you don’t want them to be overwhelmed,” Colliton said. “We want to put them in a position to thrive... As they get more comfortable in the league and they’re able to better prepare themselves mentally, they can take more of a load.”

The Hawks nonetheless continued to struggle with turnovers and defensive marking, losing their fourth straight game with just five left to play. The Panthers struck three times in a 67-second span before and after the second intermission to take a stranglehold 5-2 lead that a late Hawks push couldn’t overcome.

“It’s on us players to be sharp in every situation and realize that, [during] a lot of shifts, the game’s on the line,” Connor Murphy said. “There’s a lot of moments in the game where we’re not showing enough desperation.”

“Win or lose, I would just like to see us play a brand of hockey that can translate to winning,” Colliton said. “I don’t think we did that tonight.’

Ian Mitchell, whose rookie season hasn’t gone as he imagined, is one of many guys for whom the Hawks’ otherwise meaningless closing stretch will matter a lot.

Making just his third appearance since March 26, the 22-year-old defenseman’s loud voice could be heard over the crowd of about 200 Hawks family and friends invited for the United Center’s soft reopening.

Mitchell will need a stronger sophomore year to begin living up to his elite prospect expectations, and the momentum toward that starts now.

“A lot of it is...to get his swagger back,” Colliton said. “It wasn’t unexpected that there was a drop-off [in his performance]. But sometimes when you go through that adversity, your confidence takes a hit. [He’s] getting back [to] being confident in himself and his ability to make plays.”

Adam Gaudette, another young player with a lot on the line down the stretch, added two assists Saturday to up his production to four points in his first three Hawks games.

Zadorov wants to re-sign

Defenseman Nikita Zadorov, a pending restricted free agent — presenting arguably the most unpredictable, compelling decision of the Hawks’ offseason — would like to stay in Chicago.

“For sure, I would like to re-sign,” he said Saturday. “I like the organization, I like the team. We’re moving in the right direction with these guys up here... It’s really big for me to re-sign here and be part of it.”

The 26-year-old Russian has been a lightning rod for criticism at times this season, but said Saturday he doesn’t pay attention to that and feels this year has been a “big step forward” for him.

“I’m averaging 19 minutes a night, and most of the year I’ve played with [Murphy] on the first ‘D’ pair, so it’s a huge step for me,” he said. “I’m playing well. [I have] also had some not-great games, but all of us make mistakes.”