Blackhawks confident there will be no Olympic hangover
BY MARK POTASH Staff Reporter February 26, 2014 8:48PM
The facts: 6 p.m., CSN, 720-AM.
Updated: February 26, 2014 11:05PM
The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup after the last Olympic Games, but it wasn’t because of anything they did right after the break.
In fact, the Blackhawks struggled as much as any Stanley Cup-contending team in the month after the 2010 Olympics. They entered the break with 87 points (41-15-5), second most in the Western Conference and third most in the NHL. But they lost their post-Olympic opener to the lowly New York Islanders (58 points, fourth fewest in the NHL), were 3-3 post-Olympics when they lost defenseman Brian Campbell after the Alex Ovechkin hit and ended up 6-7-2 in March.
They particularly struggled on the road after the Olympics. The Blackhawks, who were 9-3-1 on the road in January and February of 2010, were 2-5-1 on the road in the first four weeks after the break. It wasn’t until April that the Blackhawks started building the momentum that carried them to the Cup.
The Blackhawks had six Olympians in 2010. This year they have 10 — only three of whom have had more than one practice with their teammates since the Olympics. The Hawks have not practiced as a full team in nearly three weeks.
‘‘Yeah, but we’ve played together,’‘ veteran defenseman Brent Seabrook said. ‘‘The majority of this team has been together for 2 1/2-3 years now. The comfortability of knowing guys, hopefully we’ll gel together.’’
Experience seems to make a difference. The Blackhawks were a younger team in 2010. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were 21. Seabrook was 24. Niklas Hjalmarsson was 22. Duncan Keith was 26. It’s probably not a coincidence that the veteran-laden Red Wings had the best record in the NHL (12-2-1) in the month after the 2010 Olympic break.
Now Kane and Toews are 25. Seabrook is 28, Niklas Hjalmrsson is 26. Keith is 30. With Marian Hossa, 35 and Patrick Sharp, 32, the Blackhawks core is much more experienced this year than it was in 2010.
And as Seabrook pointed out, the Blackhawks already have shown that previous experience had made a difference this season. If there has been a predominant theme through the organization’s success under Joel Quenneville, it’s that it learns well.
‘‘We’ve sort of all grown together as a group,’’ Seabrook said, ‘‘and it goes back to winning our first Cup and being prepared to play the next season — we weren’t very good when we first came back and I think this year we were a lot better.
‘‘All those things that surround the game take your focus a little bit and I think all the guys have done a good job of learning from mistakes we’ve made in the past and focused on being bettter this time. So I think coming out of this Olympics it’ll definitely be a lot easier transition coming back to playing here.’’
The transition could be more problematic for teams with several Olympians as players adjust to the smaller NHL rinks and fight jet lag after the long flight from Sochi.
‘‘First you have to adjust back to the smaller ice surface again,’’ defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. ‘‘It was a pretty big adjustment to play on the big ice and now you’re back on the smaller ice. I hope that can go a little bit quicker. I think after a period or two we’ll be back in the groove.’’
The Blackhawks’ 10 Olympians are still adjusting to being back in the U.S. — especially the six who played in the gold-medal game on Sunday. ‘‘I’m just going to try to stay awake all day [Wednesday], maybe tatke a little nap on the flight to New York,’’ Hjalmarsson said. ‘‘And then just [drink] coffee all night and hopefully not fall asleep before 10 o’clock.’’
But overall, Patrick Sharp said he was ‘‘pretty much over’’ the difficult travel and expects the Olympic experience to be a boon to the Blackhawks, who had seven players in the medal round.
‘‘I think there’s going to be an advantage,’’ Sharp said. ‘‘We’re all pros. We know how to take care of ourselves. Being tired isn’t going to be an issue. Joel gives us plenty of rest, so there’s no excuse there.’’
Captain Jonathan Toews, who was at Johnny’s West on Wednesday but did not practice, also is expecting experience to be a factor in the Hawks’ favor.
‘‘Maybe it’s not similar ... but the way we came out of the lockout last year [21-0-3], I think we showed marturity,’’ Toews said. ‘‘We showed that we’re prepared and that guys were professionals and were ready to play some good hockey. I’m sure it’ll be that same way this time around.
‘‘I think knock on wood, we’ve been healthy and coming out of the Olympic tournament, we have guys that can carry that momentum, that confidence of playing that high-speed game and bringing it back to Chicago. Watching practice [Wednesday], it looks like guys are getting right back into it. I think we’ll be excited to play again.’’
Quennville, who has been masterful in guiding his team to Stanley Cups in 2010 and 2013, will be looking for any signs of a post-Olympics malaise — in fact, he’s expecting it and appears ready to deal with it, with 22 games left in the regular season.
‘‘We went into the break exactly how we were hoping to play,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘We’ll see how we exit and we handle it here. But watching practice the last couple of days, I like the progress we’ve shown on the ice. Twenty-two games — [we] should be energized for a big finish here.’’