CHICAGO – The first few shots are a piece of frozen cake.
After all, we’re talking about the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks here. You think they’ve never practiced a rapid-fire shooting drill? Please.
But now something is happening. Now, the burn is kicking in.
After all, we’re talking about human beings here. You think these guys are robots or something, that they’re immune to muscle fatigue? Please.
Yeah, this is starting to hurt a little bit. It feels as if the pucks are gaining weight.
“Your calves are burning, your thighs are burning,” said Hawks forward Kris Versteeg, a seven-year NHL veteran. “But it’s more in your forearms.”
And it’s not finished yet.
The Hawks work on all sorts of drills during practice, but few are as fun to watch as the rapid-fire drill. A player steps into the slot, readies his stick, and fires dozens of shots into an empty net as assistant coach Jamie Kompon continues to feed passes.
A recent drill included Versteeg, Bryan Bickell, Brandon Saad and Michal Handzus near the end of practice at Johnny’s IceHouse West. Each player stepped forward one at a time, and as he ripped shot after shot, his teammates caught their breath.
Kompon mixed the angle of his passes – some good, some bad – because players need to be ready for unpredictability in games, when sticks are swinging and ice chips are flying and opponents are looking to drill you into the seventh row.
When puck meets stick, every moment matters.
“Catch it and hammer it,” said Bickell, a 6-foot-4, 233-pound forward from Ontario. “Believe it or not, the game comes down to seconds. If you wait that extra second, there’s a stick or there’s a guy in the lane that takes away [your shot].
“So if you work on it in practice, it will carry over to the games.”
It’s hard to say exactly when the drill will pay off.
Maybe the rapid-fire moment will arrive Tuesday – this is not a test – during the Hawks’ game against the Colorado Avalanche, a young team with a promising future. Or maybe a Hawks shooter will accept a pass and fire a shot that could decide the outcome Friday against the Anaheim Ducks or Sunday against the Boston Bruins, two legitimate obstacles to the Hawks’ goal of back-to-back championships.
Hawks coach Joel Quenneville would love to see such a moment. The Hawks remain atop the Western Conference’s Central Division at 30-8-10, but they had gone winless in four out of five games before bouncing back Sunday against Edmonton.
“The next three games are all good tests for us,” Quenneville said. “We want to make sure we have a real good homestand here [that] can put us back in a better spot.”
If shooters are in the right spot, the Hawks could be in a better spot.
Versteeg, 27, battled through the burning sensation in his calves, thighs and forearms to vary his rapid-fire practice shots. Top left corner. Top right corner. Lower left corner. And so on and so forth.
“You never know,” Versteeg said. “You can practice something 100 times, and you might only use it once or twice in your life. It might be four or five years down the road. You never know when you might need it.”
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.