Blackhawks happy to have played so much hockey in last 16 months
BY MARK LAZERUS Staff Reporter May 17, 2014 10:18PM
Counting the regular season, the playoffs and the Olympics, no one in the NHL has played in more games (170) since January 2013 than Hawks center Marcus Kruger. | AP
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Blackhawks center Marcus Kruger doesn’t play an easy game. He’s not out there just skating along, dodging contact, cherry-picking goals. He’s a fourth-liner, a checker, a grinder. He’s the one working in the corners, diving in front of shots on the penalty kill, routinely getting plastered along the boards and somehow bouncing back to his feet.
And since opening day of last season — Jan. 19, 2013 — Kruger has played in 170 games, counting the regular season, the playoffs and the Olympics. No player in the NHL can match that.
So, yeah, he has been spotted limping a bit after games. And he has spent his share of time in the training room, on the massage table and in the ice tub. But Saturday afternoon, barely 24 hours before the Hawks open the Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Kings, Kruger was smiling. A couple of days off eliminated the limp. The prospect of another Stanley Cup run eliminated the mental fatigue.
‘‘Right now, you don’t think about it,’’ Kruger said. ‘‘I think everyone here loves playing hockey, and that’s what we want to do. You haven’t really thought about how many games you’ve played because it’s been a lot of fun.’’
For the Hawks, it has been 16 months unlike any other in the history of the NHL. First came the compressed season after the lockout — 48 games in 99 days. Then came a 23-game grind to the Cup, followed by the shortest offseason (79 days from raising the Cup to opening camp) in hockey history. Then came another compressed season, 82 more games interrupted by a two-week break in which 10 Hawks flew to Russia to compete in the Olympics. Now, another deep postseason run.
It’s a ludicrous amount of hockey. And there clearly were times during the regular season when the Hawks lacked the physical and mental will to compete at the highest level — stretches in December and January during which they looked uninterested, stretches in March and April during which they looked exhausted.
‘‘I think all teams go through that,’’ Kruger said. ‘‘You have tougher periods where you feel it a little more. But I think we stayed away from any longer slumps. We’ve done a pretty good job of managing that.’’
Much of that ability to keep going comes from a coaching staff that’s liberal with days off. Joel Quenne-
ville holds practices only when the Hawks have at least two days off between games, keeping his players fresh mentally and physically. The Kings, by contrast, held a practice Saturday morning — barely 12 hours after playing a Game 7 late Friday against the Anaheim Ducks and before flying cross-country to Chicago for Game 1 on Sunday.
That’s not to say the Hawks are 100 percent; no team is at this point of the season. But they’ve been better equipped to handle the taxing nature of the last 16 months than most teams.
‘‘Everyone has bumps and bruises, and you see the game count and a lot of guys [have] played a lot of games,’’ said winger Brandon Saad, who even played 31 games in Rockford during the lockout last season. ‘‘At this time of year, none of that really matters. You might be tired, but these days off and the excitement of the playoffs [help]. Going further each round is definitely a pick-me-up.’’
It’s only going to get harder from here. The physical toll is greater. The pressure is higher. The plane rides are four times longer. But it’s late May, not mid-January. When you’re eight victories from another Cup, it’s suddenly a lot easier to ignore it and to press on.
‘‘It’s been a long grind,’’ winger Patrick Sharp said. ‘‘But we couldn’t be more excited to be where we are right now.’’