Henrik Borgstrom played perhaps his best game of the season Sunday.
The talent-laden but still rough-around-the-edges forward won puck battles all over the ice against the Flames, winning possession back for the Blackhawks. He created space for his star linemates, Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat, by driving the net and holding off defenders. And he made a few nifty plays to set them up, too.
All of that was evident during a shift midway through the first period that resulted in the Hawks’ lone goal.
After a Kane zone entry, Borgstrom gathered a loose puck and took a shot that was deflected wide. He chased down his shot, won a battle in the corner versus two Flames — Rasmus Andersson and Andrew Mangiapane — and got the puck to Kane behind the net, who fed DeBrincat in the slot.
“He looked a lot better tonight,” interim coach Derek King said.
King’s quote hints at just how long-awaited that kind of strong night from Borgstrom had been, though. Throughout the autumn, basically nothing went right for him.
His on-ice production was limited. He made 17 appearances and tallied only three points. In seven of those games, he didn’t record a single shot on goal.
He was afflicted by a very unlucky string of poor health, missing eight games between Oct. 25 and Nov. 11 with COVID-19 and another illness and another four games between Dec. 10 and the holiday break with a flu bout so severe he ended up on injured reserve.
He lost the general manager, Stan Bowman, who had gambled on his NHL potential by acquiring his rights in April — at which point he was playing in his native Finland. Bowman sold Borgstrom on Chicago, prompting Borgstrom to say in May he felt “pretty confident” with Bowman’s staff, surely knowing his history of loyalty to his acquisitions. The new regime’s loyalty to him is much less cemented.
And he bounced all around the Hawks’ lineup as both Jeremy Colliton and, later, King searched to find the spot where he fit best. His playing time was a rollercoaster, fluctuating from around 13 minutes, to seven, to 15, to nine and then to 17, right before his flu hit.
But in his 17-minute game, Dec. 9 against the Canadiens, the Hawks discovered something interesting. He played that much because he was centering Kane and DeBrincat, and he centered them rather well.
So when the Hawks returned from the holiday break, King went back to that unusual first line in practice and in both games this weekend — and it clicked. Borgstrom now enters the Hawks’ Tuesday matchup against the Avalanche riding a three-game point streak.
“The guys who [center Kane and DeBrincat] have to play their game,” King said last week. “They can’t start to play DeBrincat’s game or Kane’s game; they need to just play their game. We’re hoping Borgstrom goes in there and just plays his game: drives the net, wins draws, hunts down pucks, disperses pucks to them and goes to the front of the net.”
“Those guys are so skilled, I’m just trying to contribute in any way,” Borgstrom said Sunday.
Borgstrom added he believes he “still [has] a long way to go to be at my best,” and he’s probably right. Playing alongside the Hawks’ two stars is a somewhat cheap way to accumulate points; he’ll eventually need to demonstrate he can produce elsewhere, too.
He has shown some effectiveness with Philipp Kurashev (83.3% scoring-chance ratio in 25 minutes together) and Dylan Strome (56.5% in 26 minutes together) and built some familiarity with Dominik Kubalik (45.7% in 83 minutes together), so perhaps King could construct future Borgstrom lines with combinations of those guys.
One way or another, though, Borgstrom is finally showing signs of settling into a rhythm. A more stable winter will prove if that’s actually sustainable.