(HockeySTL)-- Only a few brief hours stood between flights for seven Blues Olympians, head coach Ken Hitchcock, and general manager Doug Armstrong. The group returned from Sochi, Russia on Monday morning and boarded a charter flight to Vancouver at a little after 8 o’clock that evening.
Of the group, only Hitchcock admitted to sneaking in a brief nap before the flight to Vancouver. The players, which included David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, Alexander Steen, Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Pietrangelo, and Jay Bouwmeester, were all noticeably fatigued when they spoke to the media before boarding their evening flight.
“I’m completely out of it right now, if I’m being completely honest,” said Berglund, who was one of four Blues players to compete in the Gold medal game on Sunday.
Team Canada won Olympic Gold for the second consecutive time on Sunday, defeating Sweden with little problem. Team USA was eliminated from the Gold contention on Friday after it fell to Canada 1-0. With the U.S., Sweden, and Canadian teams all reaching the latter stages of the tournament, they were a few days later than some of their fellow Olympians. It also means they have less time to readjust before jumping back into action.
The Blues face off against the Canucks on Wednesday. Hitchcock spent the four-hour flight to Vancouver looking at video. His team spent it sleeping.
Tuesday was another day off for the Blues’ Olympians. Hitchcock says that all practices are likely to be optional for the Olympian players for at least a couple more weeks as they try to readjust.
“We want to talk about that and see how the guys feel and how they look,” said Hitchcock.
Everybody is healthy coming back. A couple of guys didn’t get played that much and a couple of guys got played a lot, so we have to look at that. We’ll give them days off in between games, they probably won’t practice for the next couple of weeks and we will try to manage it properly.”
“We took a lot of time preparing and trying to understand what we need to do when we got back,” said Armstrong. “We’ll get to Vancouver; some of the guys will skate, some will just do exercises. The reality is, though, we have to be ready to play on Wednesday night.”
And it’s not just the players who will have to readjust. Hitchcock, in a joking manner, admitted that he will have to do some catching up before Wednesday’s game. While he has been in Sochi with Team Canada, associate coach Brad Shaw has been in charge of the players who did not travel to Sochi. Shaw ran the practices in Hitchcock’s absences and he and Hitchcock talked Monday morning to touch base before the head coach got a bit of rest.
“I can’t even remember who we played (before the break),” he said. “I think we won, but I’m not even sure about that. I had to phone the coaching staff to make sure my iPads and notes were brought here. I’ve got a four-hour flight so I’ll figure it out before we get off the plane.”
Once the Blues stepped off the plane on Tuesday, it was back to work. But the team, filled with Olympians, believes, long-term, that they are more prepared as a group than they were before the break.
St. Louis will enter the final 25-game stretch holding the first spot in the Central Division and the second spot in the entire National Hockey League with 84 points. The club will play 25 games in 47 days to conclude the season, but the real test will come after game No. 82.
“When we got off that plane (on Monday morning), the Olympics were a great experience but they are the past,” Armstrong said. “It’s like any season, when it’s over, it’s over. Our focus is back to becoming part of the Blues again.
“The guys have worked hard to put themselves ahead of Chicago statistically, and we can’t come stumbling out and looking for any reason not to play. The NHL is back up and running and if we are a good team, we have to be ready to play.”
Last season the Blues fell in Round One of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to the Los Angeles Kings. This year, they are looking for much more. They believe the Olympic experience will benefit their pursuit of the elusive Stanley Cup.
“I think it has been a great success for all of our players,” said Armstrong. “I look at Team USA and particularly T.J. Oshie. We haven’t played deep enough into the playoffs for him to be a part of a team that has a lot of media attention. He had to deal with that (at the Olympics), which was good for us. Now, he knows how to handle those situations.
“For Alex and ‘Bouw’, neither have had deep playoff runs before so playing in that pressure and winning a Gold medal is going to be great. That experience playing against the other best players in a very, very intense situation, is only going to benefit us.”
Two of the Blues’ players won Olympic Gold, four were awarded medals. That number was almost seven, but Team USA fell in the Bronze Medal game to Finland. Armstrong, Hitchcock, Pietrangelo, and Bouwmeester were all a part of what some are calling the best Olympic team Canada has ever formed. The experience in the Olympics can easily translate over to the high-pressure situations the NHL playoffs entail, and that’s what the Blues are hoping for.
“I don’t think it is winning the Gold,” said Hitchcock. “I think it is more about the people you hang out with. I think for them to hang around with people who have won Cups, played in Cup finals and then have gone on to win Gold medals back to back, and then learn how to play under pressure is a huge help.
“For everybody who went to the Olympics, every game is like a Game 7. Every game means everything and you learn to deal with that type of pressure.”
The last time the Olympics were held, the Blues had just three players participating. Two of them went to the Gold Medal Game that year, but it couldn’t translate into playoff experience because the Blues were not a playoff qualifying team that season. This year is likely to be a different story. The Blues players are all focused on the ultimate goal, and for some, that focus never veered, even in the most intense and emotional of situations.
“When we won (Gold), I talked to Alex (Pietrangelo) on the ice and the first thing he said was ‘one more big one to win’,” said Armstrong. “So, I knew his head was in the right place already. He wants to win the Stanley Cup, we all want to win the Stanley Cup. I don’t think it’s going to be very hard to get everyone back focused.”
As the NHL transitions back into its normal mode, the Blues expect to be ready. Overall, the Olympic experience was one that players raved about. But it was more than just a fun time for them. It is something that could be the difference between an early playoff exit and a deep postseason run. It may not seem like it as the players battle the fatigue over the next few weeks, but long-term the two-week experience is expected to play a positive role in the Blues’ success.
“This is just a step to where our goal is,” said Hitchcock. “Our goal is to win a Cup and the Olympics are the lessons along the way for us to reach the goal that we want to achieve. I think a week from now, when everybody gets up to speed, we are going to have a lot of good things we can rely on and take value in.”