Bickell was rewarded for his playoff performance last season -- nine goals, eight assists and 85 hits in 23 playoff games -- with a four-year, $16 million contract in the offseason. The contract made Bickell the seventh-highest-paid player on the Blackhawks this season.
Expectations were elevated with Bickell's new contract, but his regular season wasn't much different than any of his past NHL seasons. He had 11 goals, four assists and a minus-6 rating in 59 games. A knee injury had something to do with those numbers, but Bickell when healthy also lacked the tenacity he brought in the playoffs last season. He averaged 1.78 hits this past regular season after averaging 3.7 hits in the playoffs last season.
But when the playoffs arrived again this season, Bickell flipped the switch again. He began playing with abandon once the first puck dropped between the Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues in their first-round series. Where he picked his spots to hit opponents in the regular season, he began throwing his body at the Blues whenever and however he could. He played faster, harder and with more purpose.
It's not that Bickell doesn't care about the regular season. He's just smarter about how he uses his body during an 82-game schedule. In the playoffs, he's reckless with it. He'll sacrifice himself in whatever way he can for the Blackhawks to make another run at the Stanley Cup.
"I don't want to say if I played like this all through the regular season I would be probably in the ice tub probably 24 hours, but it's tough hockey," Bickell said recently. "And I want to play it most of the time in the regular season, but it's hard. But playoffs is playoffs and you do whatever it takes."
Bickell has so far upheld his reputation as a playoff star. He scored two goals, recorded one assist, took 19 shots on net and delivered 35 hits, which ranks third in the playoffs, while helping the Blackhawks eliminate the Blues in six games.
Bickell's teammates have recognized he's playing at a different level.
"I think the most noticeable thing with Bicks is his speed," Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said. "He's skating in straight lines and finishing his checks. He's a big body that can move well, so when he hits you it's going to hurt. You've seen some of the big hits he's put on guys in the series. Plus, he's getting to the net. He scored a big goal for us [in Game 4]. When he's playing like that at this time of the year he's tough to stop.
"Maybe he's pushing it that much harder at this time of year. He's focused on what he needs to do out there."
Bickell takes pride in being a difference-maker in the playoffs. He'd like to produce more in upcoming regular seasons, but he still considers the playoffs to be more of a match for his ability.
"Yeah, I think I'm more of a playoff hockey kind of guy," said Bickell, who played on the Blackhawks' top line for much of the series. "But I know the regular season wasn't the way I wanted it to be. But this is a new season and everyone starts at zero and this is where it really counts. Getting into the playoffs is huge, but when we're here we need to have our big guys step up, and I'm happy to contribute in any way. For me, I need to be physical, and I think I have been and I need to keep it up."
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville would love for Bickell to be that same aggressive player in the regular season, and he holds out hope Bickell can still find a way to be consistent throughout entire seasons in the future. But for now, Quenneville can live with Bickell just raising his game in the playoffs.
"I think every team in the league would love to have that power forward that brings that element to their game, and [where] their production's in the 20-goal numbers and brings a physicality and a presence and has speed and can be disruptive in a lot of ways," Quenneville said. "Those players are hard to find, and I think everybody's wish list would be that guy. So, you know, we're happy to have him now, but certainly we'd love that consistency, and I think that's where we're working to get as we go along."