TAMPA, Fla. — Over the past month, Connor Bedard had been tantalizing the hockey world with his occasional flashes of brilliance. He looked the part. He was matching expectations. With seven points in 11 games, he had been clearly the best player on the Blackhawks’ roster.
All the while, though, it felt like he hadn’t yet reached his highest level, hadn’t yet had his breakthrough moment, hadn’t yet evolved from very good player to superstar. Those closest to him wholeheartedly believed that next step was coming soon.
And on Thursday, they were proven correct. Bedard erupted for four points, quadrupling his previous single-game high, as the Hawks raced past the Lightning 5-3.
“He’s been here for a dozen games now, and he’s starting to really figure it out and use his skills at the best of his ability,” coach Luke Richardson said. “It paid off for him and us tonight.”
Richardson talked with Bedard this week about diversifying the ways he uses those aforementioned skills, urging him to “go after and get pucks himself” rather than just waiting for them to come to him.
The 18-year-old phenom took that message to heart and got the Hawks on the board less than five minutes into Thursday’s game thanks to an aggressive forecheck alongside Philipp Kurashev.
Bedard pestered Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman and forced a turnover below the goal line, then boxed out Hedman to create space on the back door to knock in a feed from Kurashev.
He caught fire later in the first period and into the second, tallying three points in a span of 4:34.
A slick backhand pass with some deception gave Tyler Johnson a tap-in goal on a two-on-one rush after Nick Foligno forced a neutral-zone turnover. A firm shot-pass gave Corey Perry a tip-in power-play goal after a second of stickhandling drew two Lightning penalty killers toward him (as tends to happen) and away from Perry.
Sandwiched in between those assists was another impressive goal. He stripped the puck off a Lightning player in the neutral zone, then raced behind the defense to receive a pass from Foligno.
His quick forehand-to-backhand-to-shot move was initially stopped by Lightning goalie Jonas Johansson’s toe, but Anthony Cirelli — skating full-speed to try to catch up to Bedard — crashed into Johansson and pushed it over the line.
“[For] all the points, I feel like other guys did great things and I got the benefit,” Bedard said after the game, sounding as unfazed as usual. “It’s obviously nice getting on the scoresheet, but there’s a lot that goes into it.”
Responded Richardson: “He’s the type of guy that’s never going to be satisfied, so we love that kind of attitude around here. We’ll let him keep growing and getting better.”
The storylines did stretch well beyond Bedard for the Hawks, who lost Taylor Hall, Andreas Athanasiou and Jarred Tinordi all to in-game injuries. Hall’s apparent right knee injury seemed particularly concerning, but Richardson said the veteran forward “looked better” in the locker room after the game than he did on the ice.
Kevin Korchinski earned his first career NHL goal thanks to a friendly ricochet off a Lightning skate, whereas Johnson and Perry’s goals were both their firsts against their former team. Goalie Petr Mrazek was stellar again, too, stopping 30 of 33 shots and helping the Hawks survive some sloppy defensive coverage sequences.
Nonetheless, there was no question who stole the show — and who he stole it against. The Lightning player Bedard stripped before his second goal was none other than Nikita Kucherov, one of Bedard’s offensive role models and favorite players to watch over the years.
Even earlier this week, Bedard was watching on TV as Kucherov pulled off some “pretty silly” moves to torch the Maple Leafs and Canadiens. On Thursday, Bedard made Kucherov look silly instead.