Jujhar Khaira immediately knew he’d made a mistake.
Just three minutes earlier — during the second period of the Blackhawks’ loss to the Jets on Sunday — he’d been the one scoring a goal and celebrating in style. But in this instance, he’d let the Jets answer right back.
“I’ve got to know where I’ve got to go on that,” Khaira said Wednesday, thinking back. “Once I hand it off to the ‘D,’ I have to cover the middle. That’s the most important ice. I have to learn from that. That’s a mistake, that’s not how you want to learn, but unfortunately that’s what happens. Now it’s just [about] trying not to let that happen again.”
The error occurred when Khaira — who was briefly covering Jets puck-carrier Blake Wheeler as he skated down the right-side boards in the Hawks’ zone — let Hawks defenseman Filip Roos take over covering Wheeler as he progressed toward the goal line.
But then Khaira, instead of cutting into the middle of the zone and picking up a new coverage assignment — and he would’ve had two to choose from, since Jets forwards Cole Perfetti and Mark Scheifele were both open — simply stopped his motion and idly watched the puck. Wheeler curled behind the net and fed Scheifele in the slot for an easy goal.
Hawks coach Luke Richardson called out Khaira for it after the game, noting he needed to “float to the inside and have [his] stick to the inside” in that situation.
Richardson mentioned Wednesday, though, that Khaira is always the “first guy to ask to look at his shifts” and receive feedback. And coincidentally, that one glaring mistake seems to be an exception to Khaira’s rule lately. He’s arguably playing his best hockey in years.
In his first 12 games of the season, he tallied one point, 10 shots on goal and 10 scoring chances. In his last seven games, he has recorded four points, 13 shots on goal and 13 scoring chances.
Those four points equal his total from his entire previous Hawks tenure (39 games, dating back to October 2021) and mark his most productive seven-game segment since February 2021 with the Oilers.
He has been promoted from the fourth to third forward line, skating alongside Jason Dickinson and Colin Blackwell. His ice time has increased from 12:06 to 15:40 per game.
And during his five-on-five ice time, the Hawks’ team scoring-chance ratio has improved from 33.3% to 44.8%. That is still below the break-even point, but it’s better than most of his teammates; breaking even analytically on this tanking Hawks team has proven to be nearly impossible.
“It’s the same mindset I always have,” Khaira said. “But right now, they’re going in. So I’ll just try to stay confident and continue to do what I’m doing.
“As long as we’re creating those chances, that’s the main thing. But [to score some] greasy goals, we have to get to the net more and try to be in the right areas for those rebounds and tips and all that.”
Getting to the net is basically the Hawks’ No. 1 instruction for Khaira in any situation, be it in the offensive or defensive zone. He missed that assignment during the Scheifele goal Sunday, but he has been acing it more often than not recently.
“When he’s moving his feet, he’s strong on the puck and he can make things happen,” Richardson said. “When he stops moving his feet, he gets stuck on the wall on certain things, then he gets glued into the puck — as anybody would.
“He’s just trying to get into a rhythm … and he’s doing a good job for us. [In] versatile roles, he’s great.”