CHICAGO -- The matching knee braces hanging in the back of Bryan Bickell's dressing-room stall are enough body armor to make Iron Man take pause.
The Blackhawks winger is adjusting to life as a player who must wear the braces while recovering from knee injuries. The latest, to his left knee, occurred Nov. 19 against the Avalanche and resulted in Bickell missing 14 games. Since returning Dec. 17, he has one goal and an assist and is a minus-3 in eight games. He hasn't matched the level of the dominating player of the Hawks' run to the 2013 Stanley Cup.
While Bickell has returned to the lineup, he is not fully back from the injury suffered when he slid into the post in Colorado.
"It affects my skating, lugging these things around the whole time now," said Bickell, glancing at the braces. "You don't have that free motion that you had before. You just need to adjust, and hopefully it heals quickly.
"Confidence goes a long way, and I know being out for a month and the situation with my knee, it's getting better every day. It's ... getting closer to where I need to be, but it's going to take time. (After) a month off, I felt I could play and it wasn't going to get any worse. Just flexibility and motion is different than what it used to be."
It's clear he's not a soft hockey player. Bickell played through an injury to his right knee and left wrist (which required surgery) during the postseason and is willing to do what it takes to get on the ice. That means playing with the braces, which usually come off after six months.
"I'm probably going to keep playing with them for the rest of the year just in case and use the summer to strengthen and work on it," he said. "Get it better and hopefully come next year I won't have to wear them."
He also has to overcome stiffness in the knee, which worsens when the Hawks don't take the ice on off days. Bickell already is eyeing the three-week Olympic break in February.
"(When) that break comes, I need to work on my flexibility and not let it stiffen up," Bickell said. "That (should) give me time to loosen it up and keep it fresh for when I come back."
The stretching exercises Bickell does to loosen the knee are new to the player in his seventh season.
"I'm not really flexible at all," the 27-year-old said. "I didn't really stretch in my career, but I have to (now). I'm getting older. I don't consider myself that old, but (when) these injuries come over your career you need to help the body do whatever it takes to get back on the ice."
Coach Joel Quenneville said he wants "a little bit more" out of Bickell like he contributed during the 2013 playoffs, when he had nine goals and eight assists in 23 games and was a physical presence.
"It has been a process (with) that consistency of his game, where we know what to expect from Bick, and he knows what he's going to give us game in and game out," Quenneville said. "There's a level he has to get to, (and) we're going to keep pushing him to get back. Knee injuries or any kind of injury, it takes you a while to get back to that level. He's skating all right; I just want (him) to get back to being stronger in the responsibility area."
Bickell also must battle through hesitancy to throw his weight around that has come along with playing with a knee injury.
"Maybe I need to be a little more physical," the 6-foot-4, 233-pounder said. "In my mindset, (it's) that I could be being more cautious but I need to ... just fight through it."
The Hawks sent goaltender Jason LaBarbera to Rockford of the AHL on Saturday. Antti Raanta will slide back into the backup role to Corey Crawford.
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