Olympic teammates now enemies
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- One of the prevailing theories being bandied about this season was the Olympic tournament might tire out some star players who were in Vancouver, hampering their effectiveness come playoff time.
Um, you can flush that theory down the toilet.
There are 14 Olympians in the Western Conference finals, nine of whom played right to the final day in the gold-medal game. Wear and tear? Puh-lease.
"A lot of people made a big deal of it," Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle told ESPN.com. "I never believed it for a second."[+] EnlargeBruce Bennett/Getty ImagesSan Jose's Dany Heatley and Chicago's Jonathan Toews together won gold for Team Canada. Now, they'll clash in the West finals.
Boyle is one of seven Team Canada members in this series, along with Sharks teammates Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau; they were friends for two weeks with Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith of the Blackhawks, winning Olympic gold together.
Now, they're enemies for potentially two weeks in the Western Conference finals, which begin Sunday.
"I'll be hacking Johnny as much as I can," Thornton, laughing, said of Toews on Saturday. "I loved him for two weeks in February, but, you know, that's different now."
Toews said he enjoyed meeting the Sharks' players in Vancouver and Thornton was "a good guy." But yeah, the feeling is mutual now.
"I'm looking forward to giving him a few whacks, too," smiled Toews. "You know, it's a special thing. It's a short-term thing to spend a couple weeks with new guys, new teammates at the Olympics. You come together so fast, win a gold medal, silver medal, doesn't matter. It's still a special thing.
"Now you're back with your teammates. It's something you worked toward all year, is to win a Stanley Cup. I think with this type of team, you go through so much more together. I think when you win, it means a lot more in that sense, too. Hopefully we'll get the best of him this time."
"I got to know Joe Pavelski pretty well," the Hawks star said Saturday. "We shared some funny stories about [Hawks checker] Adam Burish. They played together in Wisconsin. We talked about him a lot. Joe's a good kid. He's obviously really hot right now, a guy we have to eliminate.
"Like Jon [Toews] said, it's kind of nicer when you're with a team for the whole year ... instead of two weeks," added Kane. "It would have been great to win that tournament. Met a lot of new friends there. But this one will be way sweeter, I think."
Seabrook and Keith aren't just playing against Olympic teammates, they're going to be asked to directly shut down Thornton, Heatley and Marleau.
"Obviously, it was pretty cool meeting those guys and playing there [in Vancouver]," said Seabrook. "But, you know, it's different now obviously. We have a job to do. We're going to do it as best we can. They're going to feel the same way. You know, I think we picked up a few tips of what they like to do. Other than that, we've just got to play our game."
Most of the 14 Olympians have been dynamite for the Hawks and Sharks in these playoffs, led by the Conn Smythe-worthy play of Toews and Pavelski, while Kane, Seabrook, Keith, Thornton, Boyle and Douglas Murray have also been terrific, showing no signs of wear and tear from the Olympics.
"It was a huge difference that it was in North America and we didn't have to cross the ocean," said Murray, who played for Sweden. "That makes a huge difference. You're jet-lagged going there and you're jet-lagged coming back."
Both coaching staffs also deserve credit. They had a plan in place for their respective Olympians with the playoffs in mind.
"As far as the fatigue factor, you know, I think [Sharks coach] Todd [McLellan] knew this was coming, the possibility we were going to have a lot of guys at the Olympics," said Heatley. "And all through the year, he did a pretty good job of getting us days off before the break, and even after the break."
"We tried to gauge that as best we can," said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. "I know our team game slipped a little bit coming out of the Olympic break. We tried to monitor their ice time a little bit, cut them back a little bit. ... That was part of our thought process, give them a couple days off here and there, and hopefully they could replenish their tanks. We're very happy with where they're at right now. Seems to be a lot of energy in these guys."
What those Olympians brought back with them, particularly the nine players who won gold or silver, was invaluable big-stage experience. You're talking about a game that was watched in record numbers, and the pressure to deliver that Sunday afternoon was out of this world.
"The confidence that you get from winning something like that, being part of it, I think it's huge, and you try to bring it back to your club, your NHL team, maybe try and continue it and maybe pass some of it on," said Marleau.
"Well, I think the experience of being there and playing under that pressure, that microscope, definitely helps when you get to this time of year," said Toews.
This much we do know: Either four Sharks or three Blackhawks will have a shot at capping Olympic glory with a Stanley Cup. Of course, if Thornton had his way, those Blackhawks buddies of his wouldn't be standing in his way.
"I was hoping they'd be done by now," he said with a smile.
Yes, those Olympic friendships are on hold until further notice.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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