By Adam Hoge-
UNITED CENTER (CBS) — You earn your money in the playoffs.
Bryan Bickell is proof of that. Winner of a four-year, $16 million contract last summer after scoring nine goals during the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the winger struggled during the ensuing regular season, only scoring 11 goals in 59 games.
But it’s playoff time again, which means Bickell is playing his best hockey again.
Through eight playoff games, Bickell has five goals and three assists, with three of his eight points coming Sunday in the Blackhawks’ 4-1 win over the Minnesota Wild in Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals.
“It’s such a crucial time,” Bickell said after his third period goal iced a 2-0 series lead. “I want to play in the regular season the way I do here, but it just seems like good things happen this time of the season.”
And yet so many bad things happened during the regular season. By his own admission, he wasn’t playing confident hockey — and the injuries didn’t help either.
“I know the fans were kind of all over me at the start of the year,” Bickell said. “With the season (going the way it was) and then injuries that kind of set me a couple steps back, but hopefully I can erase that regular season with a good playoffs and a good run this year.”
So far that’s exactly what he’s doing. The cries from fans that claimed Bickell wasn’t living up to the contract are now gone. They’ve been replaced by cheers, with the reminder that Bickell earned that money in the playoffs anyway.
It was just a couple months ago when Bickell was fighting for ice time. But something changed late in the season when the games started to become more important.
So when the playoffs arrived, Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville made a familiar move: He put Bickell on the top line.
“I thought his play all year long was ordinary until the very end of the year, when he was trending and looking like he was going to play like he did last year in the playoffs,” Quenneville said Sunday. “And last year in the playoffs we gave him a lot more responsibility and he just seemed to grab it. He got more quality and quantity of ice time in some big games and it looks like he earned it and deserved it and got rewarded in the summer and now he’s playing exactly the same way.”
It was Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals last year when Bickell found himself on the Blackhawks’ top line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. And it’s that combination that is working again in the playoffs this year.
The Blackhawks’ first goal Sunday came when Bickell found Marian Hossa on a breakaway with a long, crisp pass. Hossa was initially stopped with a great pad save by Iyla Bryzgalov, but Toews was right where he needed to be to tap in the rebound.
The play seemed to catch everyone off guard — even Bickell and his head coach.
“I’m not really a passer. I think my eyes were closed when I passed to Hoss,” Bickell said.
Quenneville had a similar assessment.
“During the season, you probably don’t see too many plays out of him like that,” he said. “He’s got such a big shot you’d rather seem him shoot sometimes than see him make plays … Against this team, don’t try to do it too often because it’s going to come back and bite you.”
But given the result of the play — and the fact that Hossa was wide open — Quenneville couldn’t be too upset about the pass.
“That first assist was a special play,” he admitted.
Bickell wasn’t done. He added another assist on the Blackhawks’ second goal, a nasty wrister by Brandon Saad.
But that “big shot” Quenneville was talking about? Bickell took advantage of that too. Just one shift after hitting the crossbar, the winger found himself on another odd-man rush and fired one over Bryzgalov’s left shoulder. With only 2:45 left in the game, the score gave the Hawks a two-goal lead and iced the victory.
So why is Bickell once again playing his best hockey in the playoffs?
“Just playing simple,” he said. “(Skating) up and down my wing, getting the puck deep, not doing too much and just finishing my checks. If I do that and give the puck to my two linemates, I think my confidence will get better. It’s going the right way right now and I’m happy for it.”
His teammates, and especially his center, are noticing.
“He’s not worrying about scoring or anything like that,” Toews said. “He’s focusing on the little details of his game and he’s doing all those little things. He’s a talented player, he’s got a great shot, he’s a big body and he’s going to get chances and obviously he’s taking advantage of them.”
Bickell said he doesn’t think the big contract added any pressure for him during the regular season. He just didn’t think his confidence was at the same level, which is why Quenneville’s confidence in him wasn’t very high either.
“He feels comfortable putting me in different situations now and I’m happy for it,” Bickell said. “I just need to keep continuing the good play.”
With the way he, Toews and Hossa are skating together again, there’s no reason to think that kind of play won’t continue.
Adam Hoge is a senior writer for CBSChicago.com and a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.