Opinion: I’ll be cheering hard for Number 10 tonight, just in case

Tonight, the Chicago Blackhawks will be afforded a rare opportunity.

No, it’s not the chance to permanently kill the St. Louis Blues’ hopes of a playoff berth. That’s much more complicated now.

It is the possible opportunity to give proper farewell to arguably one of the best to ever don the Indian Head. I am talking, of course, about Patrick Sharp.

Indeed, the first time around, Chicago never had the chance to say goodbye. The Blackhawks had just won their third Stanley Cup of the decade. It was the first one won on home ice in 86 years. Rivers of beer and champagne were flowing from the locker rooms. Apparently, Niklas Hjalmarsson’s and Marcus Kruger’s dads were taking off ceiling tiles… because of reasons. Kimmo Timonen was basking in the glory of his first ever Cup while Duncan Keith was regaling the coaching staff with his Braveheart routine. In short, to say that everyone went a little bit crazy is an understatement.

The, the next thing you know, Sharp was traded, along with Stephen Johns, to Dallas. In an instant, he went from three-time Stanley Cup champion to just another name on the long list of those sacrificed upon the altar that is the Salary Cap by Stan Bowman. For all he gave to the Blackhawks, and for all that he meant to the team and to the fan faithful, Sharp never had that Last Game. He was never afforded the chance to take one last skate in front of the best fans in all of hockey.

To say that Sharp, who is now 36, deserves all that adoration and appreciation is, again, an understatement. One could argue that the Blackhawks are not three-time champions without him. His 11 goals and 11 assists during the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs was Conn Smythe-worthy. He led all players during the 2013 post-season in goals, tallying 10 of them in 23 games. His 15 goals during the 2015 run, while on the third line, is the kind of post-season production any veteran would kill for. In other words, Sharp was integral to every Cup run.

However, Sharp is not the player he used to be. His two years with the Stars were muddled with injuries, and before signing back with the Blackhawks this summer, he was recovering from hip surgery. Moreover, the signing itself was not met with universal approval. There were those who questioned if bringing Sharp back was nothing more than to cater to fans’ nostalgia, at the expense of another player who can be more productive. They argued that even before the trade to Dallas, he was already showing signs of wear. His shots were less accurate. His 200-foot game was not as explosive.

That narrative certainly played out at the fist half of the season. He became one of the scapegoats for the Blackhawks’ unusually slow start. Yet while the first half was slow for Sharp, he became one of the few bright spots for this team in the second half of the season. Being relegated to the fourth line did not stop Sharp from becoming a consistent contributor.

But it’s not just the on-ice contributions that matter. Sharp became a steady veteran presence in the locker room this year. He took rookies, especially Alex DeBrincat, under his wing. According to Duncan Keith, Sharp assumed the mantle of role model to the kids by “leading by example and being a good teammate and showing them the ropes.” It was a far cry from the mischievous Patrick Sharp, who, along with teammate/co-conspirator Adam Burrish, took immense glee in playing pranks on then-rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

The Blackhawks may be going towards youth and speed, but it is hard to discount the sobering hand of an experienced war horse. Patrick Sharp has that in spades. Which is why his future after Saturday’s season finale is still unknown.

If you ask Toews, he doesn’t think that Sharp is done. He still sees “a crazy amount of talent” there. When asked by Chris Kuc of The Athletic Chicago, if health is at all an issue in how he will decide, he said no. Whether or not Saturday’s game against the Winnipeg Jets will be his last in a Blackhawks sweater, or any NHL sweater for that matter, Sharp is not telling.

It may be partly up to Bowman if Sharp will be back with Chicago next season. Yet, ultimately, it is up to Sharp whether or not he wants another go at it. After 15 seasons of playing in the NHL, 10 of them with the Blackhawks, four of them 30-goal campaigns, three Stanley Cups, one All-Star MVP and an Olympic gold with Team Canada in Sochi, the only person allowed to tell Patrick Sharp that it’s time to hang them up… is Patrick Sharp.

We may not know Sharp’s decision for a while. It may come on Monday, the locker clear-out/post-mortem day. The decision may come a few weeks after a new Stanley Cup champion is crowned, or in July, before or after the madness that is free agency.

Regardless, here’s what we do know. Patrick Sharp is on the lineup for tonight’s game, and I’ll be watching. And I’ll be cheering for Number 10. Just in case.

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