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updated: 2/27/2014 5:34 AM

Blackhawks begin sprint for Stanley Cup

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  • USA forward Patrick Kane reacts after missing a penalty shot against Finland during the Sochi Olympics bronze-medal game.

      USA forward Patrick Kane reacts after missing a penalty shot against Finland during the Sochi Olympics bronze-medal game.
    Associated Press

 
 

The last time the Blackhawks sent their stars to the Olympics, there were many more questions than answers.

But when they returned in March 2010 carrying gold and silver medals, Jonathan Toews had gone from good player to superstar, Duncan Keith had moved from great defenseman to Norris Trophy winner, and Patrick Kane had traveled from the enigmatic to the unstoppable.

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Still, the Hawks had won nothing. The Western Conference was fraught with land mines. And the Hawks weren't even certain they had a goaltender.

What a difference winning a couple titles makes.

Their best player last June was Corey Crawford. They are still the team to beat in the West. And lest anyone in St. Louis or Anaheim forget, Chicago is the defending Stanley Cup champion.

So now begins the Sprint Cup, a torturous 22 games in 45 days.

Joel Quenneville is tasked with trying to keep the Hawks near the top of the Western Conference while knowing he can't burn out his players before the postseason, a concern much greater than their place in the standings.

Perhaps of most significance is ensuring the health and energy level of Marian Hossa, who looked positively exhausted during the Olympics.

Michael Handzus was as slow as ever in Sochi and was probably asked for too much through the first half of the Hawks' schedule, but Quenneville likes him and he came up big a few times during the last three rounds of the 2013 postseason, so rest for Handzus is also critical.

The remaining Hawks seemed to survive Russia in good shape, with Marcus Kruger having the most surprising tournament.

He was terrific for Sweden and, like Kane, Toews and Keith in 2010, maybe that experience and boost in confidence elevates Kruger in his own mind. If it does, second line center becomes a real possibility.

As for Kane, he was obviously frustrated by the tournament and especially the outcome for Team USA. The guess here is he will come back angry and look to take it out on the NHL over the next few weeks.

"Going through the Olympics is obviously a little bit of a struggle, but I felt like I played decent and had enough chances to put up good numbers," Kane said Wednesday. "It just didn't happen that way. I'm actually -- if you can believe it -- excited where my game is, where I can improve and get better."

At least no Hawks got hurt and there were no dreadful performances, while the division-leading Blues can't make the same claim.

St. Louis faces 25 games in 46 days, which began with a contest in Vancouver on Wednesday night and continues with three games in five days out West. And as good as T.J. Oshie, David Backes and Kevin Shattenkirk were for the U.S. -- not to mention the play of two Swedes and two Canadians -- goaltender Jaroslav Halak was an unmitigated disaster for Slovakia.

In 2010, Halak took the job and ran with it, starring for Slovakia and leading his team to the bronze-medal game. Post-Olympics, he came back and stole the Montreal starting job from Carey Price and brought the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference finals, before losing to Philadelphia.

This time, Halak was awful, posting a 5.13 goals-against in two games and was yanked in a 7-1 loss to Team USA. He lost his job to Jan Laco, who previous to the Olympics was the backup goalie to Mike Leighton for Donbass in the KHL.

It will be fascinating to see if Halak returns to the form that saw him post a 1.94 GA in four starts before leaving for Sochi.

When last we saw the Hawks, they had fought through a January hangover (5-3-6) and played well with a 3-1-2 finish heading into the break.

In 2010, they finished the season 11-7-3 after the Olympics, and wound up with the second seed in the Western Conference.

But that team was not defending a Cup, did not possess the same confidence and had many questions looming before roaring through the postseason and winning its first title in nearly five decades.

This Hawks team has already seen the test -- and has shown it knows all the answers.

brozner@dailyherald.com

• Hear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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