TAMPA, Fla. — So, which one did you like best?
Was it the way Connor Bedard went all in on the forecheck and then out-positioned and out-leveraged Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman — nine inches taller and 61 pounds heavier — at the corner of the goal mouth to chip in a slick Philipp Kurashev cross-crease pass?
Was it the no-look backhanded pass to Tyler Johnson on a two-on-one for another goal, a play on which you could have been excused if you thought that was an 88 on the back of his jersey rather than a 98? Was it the way he anticipated the pass by Nick Foligno that sprung the two-on-one, turning up ice and making a dash for it before Foligno even finished forcing the turnover at center ice?
Was it the ridiculous little backhand nudge he made, picking Nikita Kucherov’s pocket in the neutral zone? Or was it the way he immediately turned up ice while still following through on said pass to create a two-on-one with Foligno? Or was it the way he finished said two-on-one, with a quick forehand-backhand move?
Or are you more of a defenseman kind of person, and it was Kevin Korchinski’s first NHL goal, a pass into traffic that banked in off a skate, that was your favorite?
Or was it the fact that all four of those goals happened in one period — part of the Blackhawks’ 5-3 victory on Thursday — that really stirred the excitement in your long-dormant hockey soul?
This was it. This is what Chicago and the hockey world had been waiting for. Oh, it’s not as if Bedard had been struggling. Far from it. The guy has put the puck in the net in six of the last seven games, with one of them being overturned because the play was a fraction of an inch offside long before the goal was scored. He’s been a scoring machine, and the Blackhawks’ best player. But it’s always been a flash, a spurt, a shot. Oh, man, that shot. But everyone already knew about the shot.
This was something else. This wasn’t an uncontested shot with time and space to spare. This was a complete takeover. This was tenacity below the goal line, in the neutral zone, an attacking mindset with and without the puck. Even when he wasn’t scoring, he was all over the ice, juggling pucks in mid-air and creating scoring chance after scoring chance on an ultimately fruitless third-period power play.
This was Bedard in full.
This is why he was on billboards and commercials and every jersey and online ad. This is why the Blackhawks tanked so hard last season, and why their fans were entirely cool with it.
This kind of anticipation. This hockey sense. This finishing ability. This level of domination. It doesn’t matter that the other team has 59 percent of the expected goals when you have someone who can turn the slightest opportunity into a goal. It’s something Patrick Kane spent the better part of 16 years teaching Blackhawks fans.
“For a kid to come in at 18 years old and play the way he is, he’s a special talent,” said Corey Perry, who got his stick on a Bedard shot from the point on an early second-period power play to make it 5-2, a tip so quick it fooled a few dozen fans into tossing their hats on the ice. “You can see why there was a lot of hype about him.”
And Bedard is living up to all of it. He’s on pace for 48 goals. For 75 points. On this team. With linemates who were mostly bottom-sixers in recent years. At 18 years old.
So naturally, Bedard downplayed it. He’s as good at deflecting compliments and deferring credit as he is at firing pucks and flat-footing defenders.
“It’s just kind of sticking with it,” he shrugged. “I felt like there were games I might have created more than this and had zero points. It’s just kind of how things go sometimes. But obviously it feels good to be on that scoresheet.”
During the three-day break between games, Richardson challenged Bedard to be more aggressive on the forecheck and go get pucks himself, rather than simply wait for teammates to tee him up. Bedard took the message to heart. He was puck-hunting all night. That wasn’t just anybody he beat to the boards on the forecheck, then to the net for the return pass from Kurashev — it was Hedman. That wasn’t just anybody he chipped the puck away from for the give-and-go with Foligno — it was Kucherov. Two of the best players in the world, out-hustled and out-worked by someone who might someday soon join them at that level. This was all-world stuff, lean-forward-in-your-seat stuff.
Bedard’s breakout game felt inevitable, but it was momentous all the same. A statement. A promise fulfilled, and a promise of more.
“Having played with him at the world juniors, he had those big breakout games there,” Korchinski said. “Having a game like this boosts your confidence. It’s just kind of a testament to what kind of player he is, and what he can do at this level. So it’s a great game from him and I bet you he’s pretty happy.”
His coach certainly was. As excited as Blackhawks fans get by these Bedard moments, so does the guy who gets to coach him for however many years to come.
“Good things happen when you play hard, the right way,” Richardson said. “He’s been here for a dozen games now. He’s starting to really figure it out.”
A dozen games. That’s all. Richardson himself played in the NHL as an 18-year-old. Did he have things figured out after a dozen games?
“Not even close,” he said with a laugh. “He’s way ahead of me.”
He’s ahead of everyone, the youngest NHL player to post a four-point game in 79 years. He might even be ahead of the expectations, which were so lofty and ludicrous to begin with.
Now, there was other news to come out of Thursday’s game, both good and bad. Petr Mrázek was terrific again, as the Lightning easily could have matched or surpassed the Blackhawks on the scoreboard without another fine performance from the veteran goaltender. He finished with 30 saves. But the Blackhawks spent part of the third period with just 10 forwards and five defensemen, as Taylor Hall, Andreas Athanasiou and Jarred Tinordi were knocked out of the game with injuries.
Hall’s looked particularly scary, as he got his right knee pinned along the boards and wrenched by Michael Eyssimont. Hall needed to be helped off the ice, but Richardson suggested it looked worse than it appeared, and said that Hall was walking around after the game. Hall has had terrible injury luck so far in his brief Blackhawks career, and the team was hoping he had dodged a bullet.
“We hope he can be back as soon as he can,” Bedard said. “He’s such a big piece of our team, and a great player and a great guy.”
But no one’s a bigger piece than Bedard. He’s the future and the present, burdened with purpose and promise. And maybe that’s the part you should like best — that he seems to be perfectly able to bear it.
“He’s the type of guy that’s never going to be satisfied,” Richardson said. “We love that kind of attitude around here. Just let him keep growing and getting better.”
(Top photo of Kevin Korchinski and Connor Bedard: Mike Carlson/Getty Images)