Blackhawks get back to work
CHICAGO -- Their vacations prompted by the 2014 Sochi Olympics officially ended Sunday afternoon when the Chicago Blackhawks took the ice for the first time in about two weeks.
The defending Stanley Cup champions, who sent 10 players to Sochi, got back to business with an hour-long workout for the non-Olympians to start preparing for the remaining 22 games on the schedule.
They'll jump right back into the action too. Chicago will travel to play the New York Rangers on Thursday and then host the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday at Soldier Field in the next installment of the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series.
Tied in points (84) with the Central-Division leading St. Louis Blues, the Blackhawks are readying for a sprint to the finish line for the best possible positioning in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"We'd like to finish as high as we can," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "That would be a nice accomplishment. But we certainly want to be playing the right way right to the end of the year and finish first in our division, which is going to be a great challenge ... there are a lot of hurdles there, a lot of challenges. Right now I'm more concerned with how we're playing and getting everybody fresh as we go along here and peaking at the right time."
That could prove to be a tricky balance considering how many Olympians are on the roster. Quenneville said the six who played for Canada and Sweden in the gold medal game on Sunday would likely stay off the ice until the morning skate on Thursday in New York, while the other four -- Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Michal Rozsival and Michal Handzus -- could start trickling back into practice sessions in the next three days.
Rozsival was at the rink Sunday, but watched the conditioning-based workout in street clothes. Quenneville also said he envisions less practice time between games through the final portion of the season, trying to get some energy stored up in his team's legs, particularly the guys who traveled to Russia.
"We'll see how they are when they get back and gauge it," Quenneville said. "I would expect that they'll need a couple of days to enjoy it and celebrate and when we get them back together, I'm sure the focus will go on the right place. But a break for them off the ice will probably be healthy, as well. It's an interesting week for us. We'll see how they feel and gauge it from there."
One of those who vacationed instead of playing internationally was power forward Bryan Bickell. After having a major impact on the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Bickell signed a contract extension and has gone through an injury-marred, frustrating season. Bickell has scored eight goals and has 10 points and a minus-7 rating in 43 games.
He and his coaches hope the time off -- which he split between Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, Chicago and Dallas -- gave him a chance to hit the reset button heading into the final stretch of the regular season.
"I think coming into maybe the last 10 games, it's going to be more of a playoff atmosphere," Bickell said. "Every game will be important for home ice or for teams to make the playoffs and I think the level of hockey is going to be amped up a couple weeks after this break. We're going to be getting ready for the playoffs and for me, I need to turn up my level and play my game in the playoffs to help this team."
He's not the only one.
The Blackhawks' core group of elite players might power the engine, but their depth in quality role players often provides the extra boost that keeps them high among the NHL's top teams.
It's those players who will be leaned upon heavier than normal coming out of the break.
"I think it's important for us," Quenneville said. "I know we exited [after] the [Phoenix Coyotes] game with a message for the guys that aren't going, that when we get back here we want those guys to lead the charge and make sure [they] get rest. We're going to rely on you guys to carry, not carry the load, but let's make sure we're going to get some energy off of you guys and make sure you guys are ready to play when we get back."
The message has apparently gotten through, based on answers given Sunday afternoon. Still, those role players are going to need some help from their Olympian teammates.
"We'll try to give those guys as much support as we can," veteran forward Kris Versteeg said. "They're all the guys that make the engine turn, so they're big parts. They might come over here and think they're not going to play much, but they're all going back into the fire because that's what they do. They're all competitors, so they're all going to want to play."
Especially when it comes to the outdoor game against the Penguins, which will feature two of the NHL's most talented teams in an iconic sports venue. First, however, is the game Thursday, which goalie Corey Crawford is trying to focus on most.
"There's so much going on about the outdoor game and the [new goalie] gear and all the hype about it, so we've got to be careful not to forget about the game in New York," Crawford said. "That's a big game for us to get back in the swing of things and get our momentum again and get back to the way we were playing on the road. The outdoor game will be fun, but New York is more important right now."
Quenneville also addressed a roster move that happened this past weekend, when defenseman Michael Kostka was claimed off waivers by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Kostka, a surprise to make the team out of training camp as the eighth defenseman, returns to the organization where he won the Calder Cup in the American Hockey League in 2011-12 with the Norfolk Admirals.
"I think whether we’re looking at the business decisions and hockey decisions, sometimes they go hand in hand," he said. "It definitely gives Mike a chance to play. We liked what he brought. I think getting picked up by his former coach (Trent Yawney), I'm sure they're excited about him returning to that organization and for his coach as well. [We] just wish him the best."