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NHL players put country before team

USA forward Patrick Kane pins Sloveniforward ZigJeglic against boards during 2014 Winter Olympics men's ice hockey game ShaybArenSunday Feb. 16

USA forward Patrick Kane pins Slovenia forward Ziga Jeglic against the boards during the 2014 Winter Olympics men's ice hockey game at Shayba Arena Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

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Updated: March 19, 2014 6:24AM



SOCHI, Russia — Let’s say it’s the gold-medal game, and Sweden is playing the United States — a distinct possibility, given they’re the top two seeds in the tournament. Here comes Patrick Kane, racing up along the boards with the puck, wearing the red, white and blue. Niklas Hjalmarsson, in blue and yellow, has a bead on him.

Does Hjalmarsson drill Kane? Darn right, he does.

‘‘Yeah, if he has his head down,’’ Hjalmarsson said. ‘‘But he never has his head down anyway. It’s pretty much impossible to hit that guy.’’

Given the chance, though, Hjalmarsson wouldn’t hesitate to crunch the Blackhawks’ top scorer into the boards, especially now that the tournament has reached the elimination stage with four qualification games Tuesday, followed by four quarterfinal games Wednesday (the United States will play the winner of Czech Republic-Slovakia at 11 a.m. Central time Wednesday).

That’s the strange dynamic more than 100 NHL players find themselves in at the Olympics. Back in the United States, they’re on the same team and fighting together for the Stanley Cup. Here in Sochi, they’re on opposing teams and fighting against each other for the gold medal.

‘‘Before the tournament, you know who’s going from your team and you wish them luck,’’ said U.S. defenseman Paul Martin, who has five Penguins teammates on other teams in the tournament. ‘‘But once that puck drops, it’s all business.’’

It’s good fun to see Russian defenseman Slava Voynov lay out his U.S. forward Dustin Brown, his teammate on the Kings, in front of 12,000 rabid fans at Bolshoy Ice Dome. And the players have enjoyed bumping into each other — in opposing colors, rather than the usual matching track suits — in the Olympic village, at the cafeteria or along the Black Sea.

But the situation raises the uncomfortable — but very real — possibility that a player can injure a teammate and injure his NHL team’s playoff prospects in the process. These are all-star teams but not all-star games. The hits count; the hits hurt.

And injuries happen. An aggravated herniated disk in Swedish star Henrik Zetterberg’s back might keep him out for the Red Wings’ playoff push. Slovakia’s Tomas Kopecky was knocked out with an elbow to the head by Slovenia’s Sabahudin Kovacevic, and his immediate status with the Panthers is uncertain. Ryan Kesler’s hand nearly exploded when it got in the way of a slap shot by Alex Ovechkin in the U.S.-Russia game, and the Canucks star played the rest of the game with taped-up fingers.

None of those was a teammate-on-teammate incident, but it could happen.

‘‘You hope no injuries like that happen that are either tournament-ending or [spilling] into the NHL season, but it’s a physical game and a high-impact game, and there are potentially going to be a couple,’’ said U.S. bruiser David Backes, who has seven Blues teammates on other teams. ‘‘But if you start letting up on certain guys and trying to play hard against other guys, you lend yourself to your own injuries. We’ll play hard against whoever it is wearing the other jersey, we’ll make up afterward and we’ll rekindle those friendships when we get back to our home cities.’’

For the Hawks, it helps that their contingent of 10 players in Sochi is made up of skill guys, not physical guys. But it only takes one moment to hurt someone — and maybe hurt yourself in the long run.

‘‘I don’t hit very much anyway, so it won’t really change my game,’’ defenseman Duncan Keith said. ‘‘I don’t think you want to injure anybody, regardless of whether you play with them in the NHL or not. At the same time, if a hit’s there, you have to take it.

‘‘Right now, it’s another week of being enemies against those guys. And then, as soon as the tournament’s over, it’s back to being good buddies.’’

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus



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