Blackhawks’ rookie Connor Bedard gets red carpet treatment in Ottawa, but Senators steal the show

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OTTAWA — In the early years, everything about the Ottawa Senators was exciting. 

On opening night, Oct. 8, 1992, they faced the storied Montreal Canadiens. The old Civic Centre didn’t hold more than 10,500 spectators, and yet today you can find at least 50,000 who insist they were there. 

If the first Ottawa teams weren’t the best, some of their opponents were. For the first time, a local fan could go down the street and see Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, among others. 

Three decades later, we’ve seen a few things. Playoff teams. A Stanley Cup finalist. A franchise mature enough to produce Hall of Famers such as Daniel Alfredsson and Marian Hossa. 

And still, the educated hockey fans in the nation’s capital have an appreciation for the generational talents when they pay a visit. 

On Thursday, Connor Bedard came to the Canadian Tire and was pretty much treated like the Second Coming, a handy metaphor for this weekend. More than an hour before the pre-game warmups, fans were hustling over to the glass at the Chicago Blackhawks’ end to see No. 98 up close, even if the 18-year-old was still wearing a glass cage to protect the jaw he broke earlier this season. I wonder if he read some of the dozens of posters made in his honour?

You’d like to think this was a special reception for the budding superstar, his first appearance in the nation’s capital, but no. It’s like this everywhere he goes, according to our old pal, Nick Foligno. 

“EVERYwhere,” emphasizes Foligno, a key veteran presence on this Chicago club to help guide Bedard. 

“It’s crazy. It’s nuts,” says Foligno, on the topic of fan reaction to No. 98. 

“It reminds me of when I came into the league.”

He’s kidding. We laugh.

“It’s special,” Foligno adds, turning more serious. “He’s a great player. He comes with a lot of expectations, and with social media, everyone knows who he is, and they get excited to see him play. 

“It’s great for our league and it’s great for our team. There are a lot of eyes watching us.”

Those eyes witnessed a bit of a dud on Thursday from the Chicago/Bedard perspective. 

Within six minutes, the Senators had bolted to a 2-0 lead, starting with a shorthanded beauty by Claude Giroux. Just like that, the boy wonder from North Vancouver was minus-2, taking one of those minuses on a power play. 

Welcome to Ottawa, kid. 

 Unlike the Oilers visit, with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl wheeling around in the Ottawa zone as though operated by elite video gamers, Bedard didn’t have the support to make a great impression. 

In fact, head coach Luke Richardson told us afterward that he switched up the lines to try to find some players who could handle the puck alongside Bedard. 

Even on a tough night, you could see the kid’s skill with the puck, the stickhandling in tight quarters that separates the elite from the ordinary in the league. 

He doesn’t wow you with his speed, but he has a wicked toe drag and uses it to get off shots when a shot seems unlikely. He has a bit of Auston Matthews’ touch that way. 

Also, he will shoot from anywhere. 

But he is still a teen and these Blackhawks are a long way from their glory days with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, two names that were still represented on jerseys at the CTC on Thursday. 

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Bedard leads the ‘Hawks with 56 points in 59 games, despite having missed 14 games with the jaw injury. 

Bedard and Jason Dickinson are the only two 20-goal scorers on the team and ex-Senators stalwart Foligno is still contributing with 35 points on the season. 

In the first period, Bedard’s most conspicuous play was a giveaway, firing the puck off the boards in his own zone, where Senators winger Parker Kelly pounced on it and whipped a shot at the Chicago net. As Kelly was gathering in the puck, Bedard banged his stick on the ice in disgust at his own carelessness. 

As so often happens with turnovers, this one ended up in the net, as Kelly’s shot hit former Senators defenceman Nikita Zaitsev and sailed past Chicago goaltender Petr Mrazek. 

On a later power play, Bedard’s skill was on display with a no-look pass and then a shot/pass to Foligno for a tip that went wide.

Nothing was clicking for Bedard on this night as the Senators put on a clinic with a 2-0 lead, pressing the ‘Hawks and causing turnovers. Senators backup goalie Anton Forsberg stopped all 19 shots he faced and defenceman Tyler Kleven had a solid outing in his first game since early in the season. He was recalled Thursday to replace an injured Thomas Chabot. 

Post-game, Bedard was not made available but he was seen, shirtless, grabbing a stat sheet to see the final numbers. His looked like this: 19:55 ice time, two shots and minus-2. 

He did not look happy. The best players hold themselves to high standards. 

“I think he’s had moments where I’m sure he’s frustrated,” Foligno said, when asked about Bedard’s mindset through this long first season in the NHL.

 “Where we’ve struggled to score or offensively — he’s used to scoring every night (in junior). It’s a man’s league now, where he’s learning, ‘OK, I’m not impacting the game on the scoresheet, so how can I impact the game elsewhere?’ 

“That’s part of being a pro and learning to be successful in this league. Every great player wants to impact the game, and maybe it’s not in the first 40, 45, maybe it’s in the last two minutes. So, you have to stay with it and not let the game get away from you. I think he’s learning that.”

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Without much offensive support, Bedard still leads all NHL rookies by 16 points, despite playing fewer games than his Calder rivals. 

And Bedard doesn’t turn 19 until July. 

“He’s 18,” Foligno says. “A pure 18. It’s crazy.”

The kid could not have a better mentor than Foligno, a former NHL captain and one of the game’s great people.  

Richardson, who grew up in Ottawa and spent 21 years in the NHL as a defenceman, is the perfect coach for Bedard, teaching him the defensive side of the game as well as keeping the youngster calm. A Bedard stick check on Tim Stützle to create a turnover at the Chicago blueline was a nice bit of defensive play. 

“He’s doing good,” Richardson says. “I think he gets frustrated when he doesn’t have results, and he’s not used to that. So, sometimes we’ve got to dial him back a bit. The veteran guys do a good job of that as well. 

“We count on them. We just try to give him a game plan to get over it and get into the next game.”

For Bedard, the Blackhawks — and the Senators — the grind of the NHL regular season will soon be over. 

Bigger days ahead for both teams. 

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