Minutes before the Blackhawks season opener Friday in Prague, Erik Gustafsson looked out over the ice at 02 Arena and felt nervous before a game for the first time since making his NHL debut nearly four years ago.
Gustafsson wasn't sure why the nerves hit him – perhaps because the Swedish native was wearing a Hawks sweater in front of a European crowd for the first time, or maybe because of soaring expectations coming off the best season of his career – but the defenseman couldn't shake them.
"I don't know where it came from," Gustafsson, 27, said. "I was sitting on the bench and my heart was racing a little bit. ... (During the game) it felt like the puck wasn't my friend."
Whatever the reason, Gustafsson and the rest of the Hawks were out of sorts and lost to the Flyers 4-3. They returned to Chicago on Saturday and after almost a week to regroup finally have a chance to pick up their first victory in the home opener against the Sharks on Thursday at the United Center.
This isn't a must-win game for the Hawks. But one byproduct of the long layoff is the need to play catch-up in the standings.
The Hawks trail the Blues by five points in the Central Division and without putting together a bunch of victories on this seven-game homestand could spend the season fighting to get into playoff contention.
That was the situation the Hawks were in last season after they had two eight-game losing streaks in the first half. Not even an exceptional second half could get them into the postseason.
"It wears on you for sure," coach Jeremy Colliton said after practice Wednesday. "It was a big hole to dig out of. ... We had to play so well just to get back in the race, and ... at times that's what happens – you dig yourself out of a hole, and we just got our nose above water, and then we slid back a little bit. We want to have a good start."
If the Hawks are hungry for their first victory, the Sharks are ravenous. They dropped to an NHL-worst 0-4 on Tuesday after a 5-2 loss to the Predators.
"Yeah, they're going to be a desperate team," Colliton said. "We need to be desperate too. ... We want to get started on the right foot with our home schedule and establishing that it's a difficult place to play."
Colliton won't announce his starting goalie – Corey Crawford or Robin Lehner – until after the morning skate Thursday, but the rest of the lineup will be nearly identical to the one he used against the Flyers. The lone change likely will be defenseman Connor Murphy returning from a groin injury and replacing rookie Dennis Gilbert, who was sent to Rockford after the opener.
While Colliton said Murphy "looks good" and indicated he'll play, defenseman Calvin de Haan, who also has a groin injury, is unlikely to make his Hawks debut. De Haan sat out his second straight practice Wednesday.
Center Jonathan Toews, in his 13th season, never has played on a Hawks team that finished with a losing record at home. The closest he came was in 2017-18, when the Hawks went 18-18-5 at the United Center. Last season's team went 19-14-8. Both missed the postseason.
"A lot of the guys on our team are settling into new places with families, and it's nice to play some games here in Chicago," Toews, 31, said. "But when you have a lot of home games like that, you've got to play hard, you've got to play well and you've got to put points on the board."
And you have to put the nerves behind you.
"That's over," Gustafsson said, "I promise you."