With fewer than three weeks to go until the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, it is not too soon to ponder what life in the NHL will be like for teams after the Olympic break. Who benefits? Who gets hurt? And most importantly, will the NHL have another crazy playoff reminiscent of how things unfolded in 2006, the last time the players travelled to Europe to compete in an Olympic Games?
The question is worth asking in the context of the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks who have had a wholly admirable start to the NHL season and just had 72 hours to remember.
Every year, in the NHL’s post-dynasty era, the defending Stanley Cup champions are obliged to answer questions about a Stanley Cup hangover because it has been a tangible, identifiable fact of life for going on 15 years now.
As recently as the 2010-11 season, it was a major plot line after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup and then sputtered their way through the next season, barely qualifying for the playoffs by getting the eighth spot in the Western Conference standings and then losing out to the Vancouver Canucks in the opening round.
There was ample reason to fear that something similar might occur this time around. The Blackhawks didn’t seal their Stanley Cup victory until June 24 of last year, thanks to the NHL lockout, one of the latest finishes in NHL history. Training camps then opened earlier than usual to accommodate the 18-day Olympic break. Opening night was Oct. 1. For comparative purposes, consider that the 2012-13 season was scheduled to open Oct. 11, had there been no lockout.
Accordingly, it was a short summer at both ends of the spectrum for the Blackhawks, so their ability to sail through the first 48 games of the season without missing too many beats is actually quite extraordinary. The reality is, there has been no real reason to talk about a Stanley Cup hangover. The Blackhawks were 30-8-10 through the first 48 games this season, not far off the record pace they established last year when they went 36-7-5 in the shortened 48-game season, which also included 24 games to start the season without recording a regulation loss.
But the problem with having such a strong team is that most of the difference makers on the Blackhawks are all going to Sochi, including their top five scorers (Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa). So the question they will need to pose internally is, how to manage their ice time down the stretch so that when the playoffs finally begin in mid-April, there is still enough gas left in the tank for another two-month push?
Because apart from the random injury factor, which no team can protect against, the Blackhawks look strong enough on paper to win it all again, which would make them the first team since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings to manage the trick.
Chicago had a nice weekend, knocking off the Anaheim Ducks at home to begin things Friday night in a meeting of the West’s top two teams, and then the Boston Bruins in a Sunday matinee that was also a rematch of last year’s Stanley Cup final. In the West, the Blackhawks and Ducks ran 1-2 during last year’s regular season and if Anaheim hadn’t been upset in the opening round by the Red Wings, they might have given Chicago a legitimate run, given how they dominated the season series a year ago.
So for that reason, it was important for the Blackhawks to establish a tone in case the two teams meet again in this year’s playoff. The Ducks have a lot of Olympians as well, as do the St. Louis Blues, who are giving the Blackhawks a run for their money atop the Central Division. St. Louis has had a pretty good year against Chicago and may have the greatest depth of any of the legitimate Western Conference contenders to deal with the fatigue and the injury factor.