Blackhawks' Dave Bolland returns just in time

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

CHICAGO – The best sign for Dave Bolland(notes) might not have come Tuesday morning, when he passed a neuropsychological test, or even Tuesday night, when he had a goal and three assists in the Chicago Blackhawks’ 7-2 blowout of the Vancouver Canucks. It might have come afterward, when he recalled how he had almost scored on his first shift in 41 days.

“Yeah,” Bolland said. “I thought I had that one when it popped in my feet there.”

He stopped and smiled. His brain was working again.

“Now I remember things from this game,” he said. “In past weeks, I probably wouldn’t have even remembered what I did the night before.”

This has been the season of the concussion in the NHL. For one night, at least from the Blackhawks’ perspective, there was a happy ending.

Bolland played for the first time since March 9, when he took an elbow to the head from the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Pavel Kubina(notes) – a hit that earned Kubina a three-game suspension. He came back with the Blackhawks determined to start a comeback, trailing 3-0 in this first-round series.

Yeah, they had lost 10 players in the offseason because of the salary cap, while the Canucks had added depth. Yeah, they had backed into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season, while the Canucks had won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team.

But the Canucks were a team the Blackhawks had beaten in the playoffs each of the past two years. Bolland had been a big part of that – harassing Henrik and Daniel Sedin(notes), making life miserable for the talented twins.

And the Blackhawks were still the defending Stanley Cup champions, damn it, and they weren’t going to just pass the Cup to these guys – not when Raffi Torres(notes) had nailed Brent Seabrook(notes) in Game 3, not when they felt there should have been a suspension, not when the NHL had declined to give one, not when Seabrook had to sit out with an upper-body injury.

“You’re not going to lay down and let that team take four games in a row from you,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews(notes) said, “especially when they pull stunts like that.”

Let’s pause here for a disclaimer.

You have to be careful writing columns about courageous returns from concussions. If you don’t know how a brain injury is different from an arm injury or a knee injury or a foot injury by now, you haven’t been paying attention to what has been going on in the NHL or the world of sports in general.

No one should glorify athletes for returning from concussions too soon. If you don’t think athletes will try to play through them, especially in the playoffs, you didn’t see Seabrook on Sunday night. He took a crushing hit from Torres behind the net that left him flat on the ice. He got up. He kept playing.

Did Seabrook think about going to the dressing room and going through the return-to-play protocol for concussions?

“No,” he said. “I want to play. It’s the playoffs. We’re all playing through injuries and bumps and bruises, and it’s one of those things. I want to win.”

Seabrook took another hit from Torres later. Finally, he went off to be examined and went through concussion protocol before he was cleared to return to the game. Did he have to be forced?

“Um,” he said, pausing for a moment, “yeah.”

Bolland said he feels for Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby(notes) and all the other players out with concussions. He said the NHL needs to stiffen supplemental discipline and find other ways to combat the problem.

His symptoms were bad. He tells the type of horror stories you often hear about concussions. He would work out and have to go sit in a dark room. He would lay there and feel the room spinning. He was told to rest, so he stayed in the house – didn’t do anything, didn’t see anybody, didn’t want to. He called it “pretty dreadful.” He said he went through “a little bit of depression.”

“There probably was a time that I didn’t really think I would be coming back,” Bolland said. “You never know when you’re going to snap out of it. You never know when you’re going to get out of those symptoms or headaches or fuzziness.”

It was only about a week ago that Bolland failed a neuropsychological test. Some thought he should have shut it down, that it wasn’t worth the risk with the ’Hawks trailing in the series 3-0. When Bolland didn’t skate in the morning and looked listless in warm-ups before the game, it was duly noted on Twitter.

Was this a smart move – or a desperate one? The timing made it a fair question.

But we can only trust that Bolland did not come back too soon. Bolland said he didn’t skate in the morning because he was taking that neuropsychological test. The doctors cleared him, and he knows as well as anyone about the dangers of returning too quickly from a concussion.

“Being symptom-free is the big thing when you want to come back in these games,” Bolland said, “because you see guys take little bumps to the head, little hits, and they’re back out for another few weeks. That’s the worst thing to see.”

Bolland certainly looked healthy from his first shift. He had a scoring chance. He hit Daniel Sedin.

“After that,” he said, “I knew I was feeling good.”

He earned an assist when the ’Hawks scored 1:43 into the game. He earned another when they took a 3-1 lead 5:35 into the second period. Then, 14:45 into the second, he picked up the puck along the left wing boards, cut into the slot and unleashed a shot from the hash marks that whizzed past goaltender Roberto Luongo(notes). He earned yet another assist on the next goal.

And how did he do matched up with the Sedins? Daniel scored, but it was a power play goal late in the third that made it 7-2. He was minus-3. Henrik went without a point and was minus-4.

The Blackhawks still haven’t made this a series. They must win Game 5 to do that, forcing the Canucks to come back to the United Center for a Game 6 needing to win to prevent an anything-can-happen Game 7.

But, as Toews said, they needed to win Tuesday night “to prove a point” – that they were too proud and too good to be swept, that the Canucks and Luongo were beatable, that the Torres hit wouldn’t go unpunished.

“It was kind of our way of showing a little payback,” Toews said.

At least one more time, the goals poured in for the Blackhawks, Luongo looked like his old leaky self against the ’Hawks and “Chelsea Dagger” whipped the United Center fans into a frenzy. At least for Bolland, for all the right reasons, it was a night to remember.

“I didn’t think I was going to have four points,” Bolland said. “I was just hoping for the win tonight. But I got both, so it was a fun night.”

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