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With his shoulder finally healed, Blackhawks’ Brandon Hagel hopes to be ‘second-half player’

February 11th, 2022 by Ben Pope@BenPopeCST - Chicago Sun Times

The last time Brandon Hagel visited Edmonton — the closest city on the NHL circuit to his northern Albertan hometown of Morinville — was his first time there as a regular with the Blackhawks. It was a momentous day.

There was just one problem: he had injured his left shoulder shortly before that Nov. 20 game, and he was in pain.

“I obviously wanted to be able to play in front of family,” Hagel recalled Wednesday. “My shoulder was killing me. But I got through it, and here we are.”

Close to three months later — when the Hawks resumed their season Wednesday against the Oilers — Hagel’s shoulder feels mostly healthy, even though it still gives him some slight issues “here and there.”

He actually departed that November game temporarily with “dead arm” before returning for the third period, and Hawks interim coach Derek King had said afterward Hagel would likely have to deal with occasional such moments “until summertime, when he has time to heal better.”

From afar, it didn’t appear as if that informal diagnosis came to fruition. He has only missed three games since, and those were because of COVID-19. But behind the scenes, it sounds like his shoulder might’ve been affecting him more than he let on in December and early January.

“[His shoulder] has improved,” King said Wednesday. “He’s back to being the Hagel we know. When he first came back, [because] that’s a tough injury, you get a little weary about it. You’re maybe not going to those gray areas as fast as you usually would. But he’s back. He has been playing well. He’s a kid we need, because he drives the engine for our team.”

“I’m not used to injuries — that’s like one of my first injuries,” said Hagel, who scored the Hawks’ second goal in the second period. “So I’ve been just going off the top of my head [to determine] if it feels good, if it doesn’t. I could be in my own head. [But] gradually over the weeks, it’s been really, really good.”

His ice time increased from a measured 15:54 per game between Nov. 20 and Jan. 4 to 19:56 per game between Jan. 13 (his return from COVID) and Feb. 2 (the start of the break). He thrived on the first line with Dylan Strome and Patrick Kane for part of that second segment, but even that well-matched combination didn’t last long.

Indeed, King’s line blender seemed set on “turbo” mode throughout January, which affected Hagel — a self-admitted “kind of player to be all over the lineup a few times” — arguably more than anyone. Entering Wednesday, he had played at least 43 even-strength minutes this season with eight different Hawks forwards.

King nonetheless said he regretted overusing the blender, suggesting he might try to keep the lines more stable in February.

“I’ve lost some patience the last few games, and that’s my bad,” King said. “I have to do a better job allowing them to get some consistency and having them work through some stuff. . . . [I shouldn’t] hit the panic button every time maybe one guy out of the line is having a rough night.”

Hagel’s escape for the All-Star break to the beaches of Miami — along with a number of his teammates — surely helped him rejuvenate both physically and mentally.

Hagel and the Hawks will need to milk and maintain every ounce of last weekend’s happy vibes for the next 10 weeks, though, as they slog toward a futile finish line.

“There’s the whole thing [about being] a ‘second-half player,’ ” Hagel said. “For some guys, it works. And [for] some guys, it doesn’t. But for a lot of us, it’s nice to take a step away from the rink — because we’re there all the time — and just reset our minds and come back with a winning attitude.”

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