The Chicago Blackhawks are among the most respected teams in the NHL, and that much is evidenced by their importance in the Olympics. Ten players who regularly pull on the revered Blackhawk colors are participating in these Olympics, and that's bound to have an impact once they return.
Head coach Joel Quenneville and general manager Stan Bowman can't just expect Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson to return in top form and to step on the gas pedal as if they were returning from a vacation on the Mexican coast.
That may be just what the non-Olympic participants are doing during the Olympic break, but the stars who return are likely to be drained.
That's why the Blackhawks' performance before the Olympic break was so vital. While they gave some points away with overtime and shootout losses as well as a no-show game in Phoenix, the Blackhawks showed who they were when they defeated the Vancouver Canucks, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks on the road.
If there was any doubt that the Blackhawks were not the same team that won the Stanley Cup a year ago, it disappeared with those three wins.
That's what Quenneville is going to have to keep in mind if his team is not in top form during the first three games after it gets back from the break. There is no reason at all to panic if the Blackhawks are not at their best right away.
How could they be? Let's just say the gold medal game is once again a Canada-USA classic. Just how in the world will Toews, Sharp, Keith and Kane get as pumped up when the Blackhawks travel to Madison Square Garden to play Alain Vigneault and the New York Rangers? The players may be forced to keep their eyes open with toothpicks.
Then the Blackhawks venture outdoors for a game at Soldier Field against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Despite the big public relations boosts that come with these outdoor games, this game is likely to be one more distraction.
The weather is likely to be a lot better in Chicago on March 1 than it was in Ann Arbor on Jan. 1 or Yankee Stadium during late January. But in this winter of the polar vortex, there can be no guarantees.
Players may talk a good game about how playing outside takes them back to their roots, but they rarely have little to do with the way the NHL game is normally played. The puck doesn't slide in the snow. The ice tends to crack if the weather is too cold. There are just too many distractions.
The NHL makes tons of money when they can sell 60,000 tickets or more, but that's about it.
But some time after that game is when the Blackhawks should come back to form. Head coach Joel Quenneville does not need to push hard in the days that follow after his stars return. But he can slowly push harder on the accelerator as his players get re-acclimated to North America.
Other than that, Quenneville can tap Brandon Saad, Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford and Andrew Shaw for a little more than they are normally asked.
Seabrook, of course, is a dominating offensive defenseman who knows when to step up and score big goals. He is a legitimate game-changer who could easily have been named to the Canadian Olympic team. The same goes for Crawford, and the Canadians may yet regret that he was not available in the medal round games.
Saad is a young star on the rise, while Shaw is a hustler/agitator who is going to leave everything he has on the ice.
There will be no letdown when the Blackhawks get back from the Olympics. There may be a slow start, but the team is too deep and talented for Quenneville to worry about a hangover.
Quenneville knows that and his own talent and experience, and he will give his charges time to find their level. The only thing that could hurt the Blackhawks is if their coach starts to panic. He won't do that.
There is little doubt that they will find their top form in a matter of days after they return from Sochi.