The way Wednesday night’s game between the Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks was trending, it felt like just a matter of time before Matt Duchene found the back of the net.
Denied on all three of his shots in regulation, Duchene’s feel-good moment came when Predators coach John Hynes called his number in the shootout.
Deking to Chicago goalie Kevin Lankinen’s blocker side, Duchene weaved back to the right and roofed the puck above the out-of-position netminder for what would be the game-winning shootout goal.
“I know I’m right there,” Duchene said. “I like my decisions around the net. I’ve been tipping a lot of pucks. I knocked one out of the air on the power play and it hits the fabric of (Lankinen’s) jersey. That’s the stuff that’s going on right now.
“…The chances are coming and that’s what’s important because they’re going to go in eventually. I’ve had lots of starts like this in my career and things have a funny way of working themselves out if you keep up with it.”
It was the first time Duchene put the puck in the back of the net in nearly 11 months. The last time he scored a regular season goal was March 5, 2020, against the Dallas Stars.
Duchene showed a feistiness on Wednesday and played with a sense of urgency that was missing last season. Although he hasn’t scored a goal that has counted on the score sheet this season, Duchene does have three points. And he’s one of the Predators’ leaders in scoring chances through seven games.
“It’s funny because he doesn’t have a goal, but he certainly deserves more than what he’s gotten,” Hynes stated. “He’s had tons of scoring chances — I think he might be first or second on our team in scoring chances for — but the way he’s handled it is really mature. I’m proud of him in that area.
“He’s played his game, his attitude is great, he’s supporting his teammates, his work ethic has been good and I think he’s just in a really good place personally…I certainly see the maturity in handling some of the adversity when he’s not producing when he should be producing more.”
The hardship of the 2020 season was felt by not only the Predators as a team, but Duchene himself on a personal level. Averaging 23.4 goals and 55 points per season when he signed a seven-year, $56 million contract in 2019, Duchene’s first season in Nashville was widely considered a letdown.
He started red-hot with seven goals and 20 points in his first 24 games, including a five-game point streak to start the season. But he fizzled as the season wore on and finished with just 13 goals and 42 points in 66 games.
Duchene dealt with a near seven-month layoff when the NHL shut down its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic only to come back for a two-week long training camp and get knocked out of the Stanley Cup qualifying round in four games by the Arizona Coyotes.
Hitting the reset button after the first week of August, Duchene appears to be in a better headspace following a four-and-a-half-month offseason. No longer appearing to be carrying the weight of Nashville’s success solely on his shoulders, the 30-year-old center has played with a carefree presence this year and he’s appearing to bare the fruits of it.
“My experiences with Matt when I came in, he obviously wasn’t having a great year and he wasn’t in a good place mentally,” Hynes said. “He’s a guy that takes pride in his game and takes pride in producing…He’s in a much better place (now).”
Added Duchene: “At the end of the day, my focus is on the group and on the team — No. 1. Obviously, scoring goals and producing offense is something that I’m called upon and is part of my role and it’s something that I want to do more of this year and last year I was obviously lacking. But the only thing I can control is what I’m doing all over the ice. That’s been there this year. I’ve been happy with that, and that’s all I’ve got to keep doing.”
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