Wednesday was just like old times for Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews.
The crowd at the United Center roared for his name in the starting lineup. He won the opening faceoff. And he centered Dominik Kubalik, his inseparable winger from 2019-20, as the Hawks opened the preseason with a 4-3 shootout loss to the Red Wings.
Toews, who sat out all last season, had participated fully in the Hawks’ first five days of training camp. But a complete preseason game — and sizable minutes in it — represented another impressive step forward in his path back to 100% fitness.
”Pretty happy and grateful to be out here,” Toews said in an interview on NBC Sports Chicago during the first intermission. ”That first period, I’ve got some D-zone video to watch or something. I was a little lost out there.
”Training camp has been tough, and it reminds you what the grind, what the routine, actually feels like. But to go through that for five days and continue to respond the way I have is a huge confidence-booster. . . . I’ve still got a lot of work to do, and I’ll keep getting better as camp and the season goes along. But I’m pretty happy with my progress.”
While most of the Hawks’ stars — including wings Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat — sat out the game and might not play much until the regular-season opener Oct. 13, this preseason is critical for Toews, and he likely will see the ice plenty during it.
”It’s just been great to have him back, first of all,” coach Jeremy Colliton said before the game. ”He has worked extremely hard to get himself ready. That process is ongoing, but he means a lot, just his presence to the team and leadership in the room. And he’s a pretty good player, too, so we want to get him back to as high a level as we can. But we’re going to be patient.”
Lukas Reichel’s appearance was also special. He donned a red Hawks sweater and played in the United Center for the first time, calling it a ”dream come true.”
The 19-year-old German rookie skated on the third line with fellow youngsters Henrik Borgstrom and Alex Nylander.
Although his switch to the smaller North American ice surface has been abrupt, Reichel’s creativity, puckhandling and adeptness in tight spaces has helped him adjust quickly. He has realized, with the smaller rink dimensions, that he always has to ”know what’s coming next” — and his hockey IQ allows him to do so.
”He just keeps getting better,” Colliton said. ”If at some point there’s a plateau, that’ll be totally normal and we’ll help him through it. But he’s definitely had some real good moments so far in camp.”
Entwistle keeps grinding
Wing Brandon Hagel was asked Monday who will be the Hawks’ 2021-22 breakout star, like he was last season. His answer was wing MacKenzie Entwistle.
”I know his work ethic and what he does,” Hagel said. ”He really wants to get to that next level, and he has the ability to do so.”
Entwistle and Hagel have been roommates for years, dating to their time in Rockford, so there might be some bias there. But Entwistle, 22, has been impressive in camp, with Colliton raving about how he has taken a ”huge step forward year-to-year” with his skating, in particular.