BOSTON — John Hayden wasn’t just resigned to spending the rest of the season in Rockford, he was genuinely excited about it.
Everyone wants to be in the NHL, of course. But Hayden was playing major minutes and chasing a playoff spot. He was having fun.
Well, as Joel Quenneville always says, things change quickly in this business.
Hayden was an emergency call-up when Vinnie Hinostroza had to leave the team to attend to a family matter, and he immediately made an impact. He showed up in Boston on Friday night, and had a goal and a fight in Saturday’s 7-4 loss to the Bruins. And he might be here to stay because of a nasty-looking right-leg injury suffered by Anthony Duclair that will keep him out for one to two weeks.
“The whole time I’ve been in Rockford, I’ve felt that I belonged in this league,” Hayden said. “But that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t have a beneficial experience there. I think it was great for me from a development standpoint.”
Even though they’re out of the playoff picture, the Hawks still measure success in wins and losses. Fans and maybe even management might be thinking of the draft lottery, but players always play to win. So nobody was happy that the Bruins scored three goals in less than three minutes in the third period, including two power-play goals on one Patrick Kane double-minor for high-sticking, to rally for the win. Boston had four power-play goals and a shorthanded goal.
But the wins and losses really don’t matter at this point. The final month of the season is about evaluating young talent and seeing who might be a good fit next season. In that respect, Saturday’s game was full of promising performances against a depleted Bruins squad that was without Patrice Bergeron (foot), Charlie McAvoy (knee) and David Backes (suspension).
Defenseman Erik Gustafsson, fresh off signing a two-year contract extension, had a goal and two primary assists for his first three-point game. Seventeen seconds (sound familiar?) after David Krejci’s first of two power-play goals made it 2-0 Bruins, Gustafsson’s blast from the blue line was tipped in by Jonathan Toews. Twenty-nine seconds after that, another Gustafsson shot made it through cleanly, tying the game at 2-2.
Gustafsson said he’s playing looser now that the contract is behind him.
“I don’t have to worry about anything now,” he said. “I just try to be myself out there, like I was down in Rockford.”
Hayden, meanwhile, dropped the gloves and wrestled Sean Kuraly to the ice less than six minutes into the game, then beat Tuukka Rask with a hard shot from close range early in the second period to put the Hawks up 3-2.
“Hayds was really good,” Quenneville said. “I thought he had an excellent game. I thought [Gustafsson] had an excellent game. And the kid scored his first goal today.”
“The kid” is rookie Matthew Highmore, who blasted a shot from the right circle past Rask to put the Hawks ahead 4-3 late in the second period. Highmore celebrated his first NHL goal (and point) by dropping to one knee and letting out a primal scream.
Highmore always figured his first goal would be a fluke redirection, or a point shot that banked in off his skate.
“I think I blacked out, honestly,” he said.
Quenneville certainly wasn’t thrilled about the Hawks’ special teams, but pointed to a solid first 40 minutes, after which the Hawks led 4-3. A win would be nice, and the Hawks will try to return the favor when the Bruins visit Chicago on Sunday. But at this point, the bigger picture matters more.
“Obviously, the ‘W,’ that’s the standard, and we expect to win every game,” Highmore said. “But we’ve got to keep continuing to build as a group and start putting it together. We do it from time to time, we just [need] a full 60 minutes.”
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