Back from injury, Blackhawks’ Kevin Lankinen needs stellar stretch to end rocky season
Lankinen will start one of the Hawks’ two games this weekend — after missing nearly a month due to a hand injury — and he needs that start to be impressive.
Finally back from an unlucky hand injury, Blackhawks backup goalie Kevin Lankinen has declared himself “the happiest guy on the team right now.”
He might be able to drop the last two words from that description. Other than possibly starter Marc-Andre Fleury, Lankinen may well be the happiest Hawk at any time.
“You’d have to ask everybody else,” he said with a grin Tuesday. “But I try to be.”
The fact that Lankinen’s attitude remains so positive is all anyone needs to know about his resilience and authenticity in a season of challenges that would have eroded the confidence of many of his teammates.
Just as many things have gone wrong for him this season as went right for him last season. The 26-year-old Finn has been limited to only 11 starts and 13 appearances behind Fleury, dealt with a long bout of COVID-19 in December and January and suffered a boxer’s fracture in his right (blocker-side) hand on Jan. 22 against the Wild. He has played just 92 minutes over the last two-plus months and has won only two games all season.
“Every season has its own challenges, and this season has been different,” Lankinen said. “There are so many things you can’t control, whether it’s a virus or an injury or whatever. You can’t dwell on that too much. It sucks, and you’ve got to go through the motions, but you’ve got to see the other side of it.
“For me, it has been a year of a lot of growth. There is still a lot of hockey left, and I’m pumped to be back and show my best because I know that, for sure, I’m a better goalie now than I was a year ago.”
The hand injury took Hawks interim coach Derek King by surprise when he learned about it well after the game in January. Lankinen apparently felt the pain during the game but simply held off on telling anyone.
“You always get a couple bumps and bruises throughout the game, and you always want to finish the game if there’s any chance you can do that,” he explained. “We had a good chance to win, and I wanted to finish the game and see afterward how it was.”
Lankinen’s recovery took longer than the initial estimate of two to three weeks, but he was able to keep skating and conditioning during that time and said he feels great now as a result.
He resumed facing shots in practice Tuesday, was activated off injured reserve Wednesday and will start one of the Hawks’ games this weekend against either the Devils or the Blues.
He desperately needs a quality start to jump-start a strong closing run this spring. His play so far this season, albeit in limited action, has been surprisingly poor; his .889 save percentage ranks 66th among 68 goalies leaguewide (ahead of only the Kraken’s Philipp Grubauer and the Blue Jackets’ Joonas Korpisalo), and his minus-7.4 goals-saved-above-average metric ranks 63rd.
As a pending unrestricted free agent playing for a team that’s entering a period of upheaval, Lankinen will have a tenuous future in Chicago if he doesn’t improve those statistics by April.
But, as is typical for him, he hasn’t let that uncertainty and urgency affect his approach.
“I try to prove myself every day,” he said. “It hasn’t changed my mindset, really. Every time I get a chance to play, I’m going to put my best foot forward. Eventually, all the other stuff is going to fall into place.”
King sees the same thing.
“He never bats an eye, never has a bad attitude, always brings positive energy . . . and that’s what I’m seeing now, especially going through these little speed bumps of his career,” King said. “Hopefully he can stay here, and we can keep him here, because he’s going to be a really good NHL goalie.”