Lazerus: Connor Bedard lives up to the hype in his NHL debut

PITTSBURGH — Connor Bedard stepped onto the elevator at the downtown Marriott, then suddenly jumped right out, apparently having forgotten something in his room. Connor Bedard also stumbled into a dive pizza joint near PPG Paints Arena in the middle of the afternoon, apparently jonesing for some mozzarella sticks. Connor Bedard later stood near the Mario Lemieux statue outside of the rink and screamed at the top of his lungs, “LET’S GO HAWKS,” apparently unconcerned with drawing attention to himself.

Connor Bedard — OK, his No. 98 jersey, at least — was everywhere Tuesday in Pittsburgh, his presence dotting the city, speckling the black-and-gold arena with red and covering seemingly every street corner. Bedard jerseys wandered the streets of Pittsburgh all day, banged on the glass during warmups, leaped out of seats when the real Bedard fired shots from the doorstep.

The excitement is real. And just as importantly, the kid is real.

No, he didn’t score on his first shift the way Jonathan Toews did. No, he didn’t score four goals in his first game the way Auston Matthews did. No, he won’t score in each of his first six games the way Evgeni Malkin did. A secondary assist on a Ryan Donato goal probably isn’t the storybook beginning he and all of Chicago dreamed of.


The goals will come. More assists will come. Eventually, the wins will come, too. The energy? The buzz? The excitement? That’s already here. You could see it in all those jerseys in Pittsburgh on a Tuesday afternoon. You could see it in the throng of media who usually don’t travel, cramming into auxiliary locker room No. 3 for Bedard’s post-skate presser, asking if he could live up to Matthews’ debut, if he was prepared to join Michael Jordan in the Chicago sports pantheon, if he could heal lepers and raise the dead. And you could feel it with every scoring chance, every blistering wrister, every slick little play. When the puck hit Bedard’s stick, the temperature in the arena changed. Even Penguins fans leaned in, waiting to see what happened next. It was involuntary, a reflex, an unconscious imperative.

Read more: Connor Bedard’s debut as it happened in real time on The Athletic’s live blog.

It’s a feeling that shouldn’t be so foreign to Blackhawks fans, even if 2015 feels like a lifetime ago. It’s hope. It’s fun. It’s excitement. It’s something Chicago used to have the hockey market cornered on.

Bedard doesn’t just represent a new era in Chicago, he represents a restart. After the denouement of the loosely defined dynasty, after the unforgivable revelations of the Kyle Beach scandal, after the cynical (but, let’s face it, wildly successful) tank, Bedard’s NHL debut, a 4-2 Blackhawks win, was a chance to be excited about the Blackhawks again. A chance to let hockey back in. A chance to hop back on the bandwagon.

Of course, for it all to stick, Bedard has to live up to the staggering hype he so calmly shrugs off. His debut was an awfully good start. Even his secondary assist was sneakily sensational. The zone entry, on which he barreled through the neutral zone when so many others would chip and chase. The retrieval in the corner. The quick give-and-take with Alex Vlasic at the point. Then the little no-look leave he left for Vlasic along the boards, setting up Donato’s goal from the doorstep of Tristan Jarry’s crease.

As individual plays, they were nice little moments. As a fluid 21 seconds of hockey, they were a tantalizing glimpse of what could be. It’s Patrick Kane banking a no-look backhanded pass off the boards. It’s Toews muscling aside a bigger defender in the crease. It’s Marian Hossa lifting a stick and picking a pocket. It’s Duncan Keith flipping the ice with a furious charge through the middle. It’s Niklas Hjalmarsson steering an oncoming forward into the wall on his off side. It’s Brent Seabrook firing a perfectly flat stretch pass, and Patrick Sharp receiving it in stride.

The highlight-reel goals are the ones that stick in your mind. But it’s the smart, savvy little plays that add up over the course of a game, a season, a career. The former will come. The latter are already here. From a kid who turned 18 less than three months ago. 11 shot attempts. 5 shots on goal. In 21:29 of ice time, tops among forwards. A 66.12 percent expected-goals share. Good grief.

So it didn’t really matter that Bedard didn’t score on a quick feed from Donato midway through the first period. What mattered was how he started the rush with a deft little deflection, breaking up a Penguins clearing pass while surrounded by three opponents, then slipped behind Karlsson to find open ice from which to shoot. Keep doing that, they’ll go in.

It didn’t really matter that Jarry made a quick blocker save on a Bedard wrister later in the first. What mattered is the sick way Bedard curled the shot underneath Ryan Graves’ stick — while both were moving at speed — to avoid a deflection. Keep doing that, they’ll go in.

It didn’t really matter that Bedard didn’t score when he pounced on a loose puck on the doorstep late in the first period. What mattered was the way he anticipated the Taylor Hall rebound before Hall even flung his backhander into the middle, crashing the net and timing his arrival perfectly for the scoring chance. Keep doing that, they’ll go in.

It didn’t really matter that Kris Letang smeared Bedard against the boards as he skated down the left side of the ice, gassed at the tail end of a 73-second shift. What mattered was how he took the puck right off Letang’s stick at the far blue line in the first place, gassed at the tail end of a 73-second shift. Keep doing that, they’ll go in.

Bedard will get better at faceoffs (he got absolutely worked by Sidney Crosby — who was a sub-.500 draw-taker himself as a rookie — all night at the dot). He’ll get better at managing his shifts. He’ll get better at running a power play. He’ll tweak his already world-class shot to better suit the NHL. The one-timers from the left circle will come. The corner-picking snipes will come. The dazzling dangles on breakaways will come. It’s all ahead of him.

But on day one, in Game 1 of what Chicago can only hope will be a thousand and then some, Bedard did the unthinkable: He lived up to the hype.

And funny thing about hype: In the right hands, hype becomes hope. Welcome to the Connor Bedard era. Welcome back to the party, Chicago.

(Photo of Connor Bedard and Sidney Crosby: Justin Berl / Getty Images)

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