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Blackhawks say Olympic experience outweighs physical toll

US James van Riemsdyk (21) vies for puck against Canada's Duncan Keith (2) during Men's Ice Hockey Semifinals USA vs

US James van Riemsdyk (21) vies for the puck against Canada's Duncan Keith (2) during the Men's Ice Hockey Semifinals USA vs Canada at the Bolshoy Ice Dome during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 21, 2014. AFP PHOTO / ANDREJ ISAKOVICANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: 461427049

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Updated: February 25, 2014 12:04AM



SOCHI, Russia — Jonathan Toews remembers the first few games back in 2010 after the exhilaration of winning Olympic gold in Vancouver. The Blackhawks played four games in six days, starting on the road on Long Island.

And, well, there’s no delicate way to put this: Playing the Islanders wasn’t exactly like playing the United States.

‘‘The level of play is so high [at the Olympics],’’ said Toews, who helped Canada win its second consecutive Olympic gold medal Sunday against Sweden. ‘‘If I remember last time, going back to the NHL style, the pace seemed like almost a step down, where you just felt relaxed and knew you had time with the puck. Maybe that was just because guys were coming off their break and they’re out of shape, and you didn’t miss a beat. I think it’s a good thing. Not a big deal for us.’’

The big fear in Chicago leading into the Olympics was that the grueling two-week tournament, combined with the travel, would hurt the Blackhawks. The Hawks themselves don’t share that concern. While Andrew Shaw and Ben Smith went to Hawaii, Brandon Saad, Brandon Bollig and Nick Leddy went to Mexico and Bryan Bickell went fishing, 10 of their Hawks teammates were playing at the highest level of hockey possible.

‘‘I think we’re going to be in better shape than most of the guys that have so-called vacation right now,’’ silver medalist Niklas Hjalmarsson said during the Olympic tournament. ‘‘We’re still paying games. It’s just six games. I don’t think it’s going to be that big of a difference at the end.’’

Besides, the last time the Hawks participated in the Olympics — in 2010 — they went on to win the Stanley Cup. And the Blues, who are tied with the Hawks for first place in the Central Division with three games in hand, had nine players in Sochi, so it’s likely a wash.

Defenseman Duncan Keith said that while the Olympics take something of a physical toll, the net
effect is a positive one.

‘‘These pressure-type games are only going to make us better as players,’’ he said. ‘‘I look back in 2010, and it made me a better player playing the gold-medal game and games like that. . . . You learn to deal with that pressure and those tight situations where the next goal [means] the game could be over. Sometimes guys can get nervous, whereas other guys rise to the
occasion. They learn to deal with that pressure of playing those big games and not panicking and knowing they’ll come through in the end.’’

What matters most is the Hawks appear to have escaped Sochi unscathed. The Islanders lost John Tavares to a season-ending knee injury, the Red Wings lost Henrik Zetterberg for at least the rest of the regular season to a back injury, the Rangers lost Mats Zuccarello to a hand injury and the Panthers lost Tomas Kopecky (head) and Aleksander Barkov (knee) to injuries.

The Hawks appear to be no worse for wear as they head back to Chicago before visiting the Rangers on Thursday and hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday at Soldier Field.

The Hawks began practicing Sunday, but coach Joel Quenneville said he won’t rush the returning Olympians back on the ice.

‘‘Joel gives us enough time off, and I’m sure he’ll be more aware of that as time goes on, especially with the Olympians that have been here,’’ winger Patrick Kane said. ‘‘Obviously, there’s a lot of travel and a lot of preparation and the effect that goes to your body with being [in Sochi]. But we’re all professionals; we can get ourselves ready to play a hockey game. It’s what we love to do. We love to play hockey and be on the ice and try to compete. The guys in that locker room and the guys that are here always want to do more and achieve more.’’

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus



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