They've played the most games in the NHL the past two seasons, and the Chicago Blackhawks still are halfway to repeating as Stanley Cup champions.
Between the regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs they've played a whopping 165 games in the past 16 months, and that's not including games played by the 10 Blackhawks who participated in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
That's a lot of hockey, with a lot of high-intensity games and loads of wear and tear on their bodies and minds. Coming off a six-game victory against the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference Second Round, there are murmurs that some of Chicago's players are running on fumes heading into the Western Conference Final, which will start Sunday. They'll play the winner of Game 7 on Friday between the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings.
The Blackhawks, however, strongly disagree.
"I don't think we're worried about anything right now," said right wing Patrick Kane, who scored the series-clinching overtime goal in Game 6 on Tuesday at Xcel Energy Center. "We're in a pretty good position that not a lot of teams get to go through. We're in a conference final and it's going to be a great matchup whoever we face, so there's no real cause for concern and we feel our best games ahead of us. So it's exciting."
It's the fourth time in the past six seasons the Blackhawks have reached the League semifinal, with the past two serving as stepping stones to championships. That's probably why questions about their level of play in the 2014 playoffs were met with some amount of disdain after a practice Thursday at United Center.
Minnesota clearly accomplished its goal of frustrating Chicago with its aggressive checking system and collapsing, suffocating style in the defensive zone. The Blackhawks had to grind out a pair of 2-1 victories in the last two games of the series to win it, with the last one going past regulation.
It made for some ugly moments for the Blackhawks, but they still won the series.
"I don't know if we played our best game at all in the last series," Kane said. "We played some pretty good games against St. Louis [in the first round], which [was] a tough physical matchup against us. Minnesota's a tough team to play against so you could say they played well against us and did certain things to frustrate us and take away certain things that we have, but at the end of the day we're still a better team. We came out on top."
Kane wasn't the only one singing that tune.
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville also went on the offensive when asked if his team needed to find another gear in the next round.
"People might think we didn't play very well against Minnesota," he said. "I'll discount that 100 percent knowing we just beat a heck of a hockey team that plays a game that doesn't make it look pretty in order to get through it. You got to fight for your space. The more indirect plays you make the more success you have. And I think that might be a little against the way we play or some of our players' strengths, but I think that finding a way to get it done was complimentary to our team and it was hard work."
The term "tired legs" almost certainly will come up as a factor when analysts break down Chicago's path to this point. It just won't be a term used by the Blackhawks, who say that all the postseason winning they've done is more of a boost than a physical burden.
"I think we have a lot left," forward Michal Handzus said. "We have a lot of confidence and we don't think about last year, we don't think about the Olympics, we don't think about the past. We're just thinking about the present and that's it. We've moved on from a tough series against a very good hockey club, and I thought [Thursday] we were energized and excited and just ready to go for the next one. Mentally you're not drained. You're actually mentally refreshed and it's just kind of a clean slate and you go again. That's how I feel."
That's how power forward Bryan Bickell feels too.
"Every step [you take] I think you get a charge," Bickell said. "When you're that close to doing what we did last year, it's an awesome feeling to be a part of and you know every step it takes a level of mental and physical [effort] to [achieve] that goal and we're willing to do it again. I don't think we're near to empty yet."
They didn't look like a team running on fumes during a spirited practice Thursday. All healthy players participated after the team took Wednesday off.
Missing was forward Andrew Shaw, who missed the past five games with a lower-body injury. That's the only publicly acknowledged injury; other players probably are ailing but winning seems to lessen the pain.
"Everyone has bumps and bruises, and you see the game count [the past couple years] and a lot of guys [have] played a lot of games," forward Brandon Saad said. "I think at this time of year none of that really matters. You might be tired or things like that, but I think these days off help and the excitement of the playoffs and going further each round is definitely a pick-me-up."
Envisioning another Stanley Cup banner being hoisted to the rafters also helps, but the main focus right now is getting through what's sure to be another tough series.
"Maybe it becomes mind over matter a little more when you can see the goal getting that much closer and you don't feel the pain as much, but it's a battle either way," defenseman Sheldon Brookbank said. "It's not going to be easy. We're only halfway there and there's a long way to go to getting anything done here."
If they can win another Stanley Cup the Blackhawks would become the first team to repeat as champions since the Detroit Red Wings won in in 1997 and '98.
All they seem to care about, however, is the winning part.
"I don't know if it's so much about worrying about the repeat," Brookbank said. "I think it's that guys in this organization just want to win every time [we] get out there. That's all that really matters. You want to win. It doesn't matter if it's a preseason game or Game 1 in the playoffs or whatever. This team, it's just all about winning and that's all that matters. A repeat would be a major accomplishment, but we're focused on just getting the job done this year for the simple fact of winning."
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