Rest vs. Rust? Blackhawks working hard to mitigate effect of nine-day layoff

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Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville put his team through one of its longest and toughest practices of the season Wednesday at Johnny’s IceHouse West. And while it’s probably overstating it to say the players enjoyed it, they certainly appreciated it. Most of them know they needed it.

With a nine-day layoff between games following their sweep of the Minnesota Wild on May 7 and the start of the Western Conference final against the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday at Honda Center, the Hawks are working hard to limit the effects of inevitable rust heading into Game 1. The previous longest layoff between series in their seven-year playoff run has been five days.

The Hawks went through puck-battle drills, odd-man rushes and close-range drills and half-court scrimmages intended to increase the intensity of practice. With still three days before the opener, Quenneville can afford to go heavier than normal.

“That’s exactly it,” forward Andrew Desjardins said. “That’s just the compete level in practice … that’s key when you have the time off — you’ve got go battle and treat it like it’s a game.

“If we practiced the right way and were hard on each other in practice and in the corners and doing that kind of stuff, I think that rust should kind of go away on its own.”

Hawks captain Jonathan Toews called it, “a good skate, a good practice day. We kind of know the drill now. We know what’s going to happen in the next little while — kind of prepare ourselves for Game 1.”

The effect of the layoff is almost inevitable, but the advantage to one team of the other is difficult to predict. The Ducks will have had six days off between games after clinching their second-round series against the Calgary Flames. The Ducks were coming off a seven-day break after the first round before playing the Flames — who had four days between series — and won the opener 6-1. You never quite know.

“Ten days between games is a long stretch,” Quenneville said, “and you want to make sure that you try different things and make sure you’re stimulated coming into it.

“We try to simulate as much game simulations as we can and get the pace to be game situational and work off of that. It’s something you really don’t have a format that you can to go [with] to get yourself in that situation where it’s game-ready Game 1.”

The nine-day layoff is tied for the longest in a Stanley Cup playoff series since 2003, when the Ducks had 10 days off between a conference final sweep of the Wild and the opener of the Cup Final against the New Jersey Devils. The Wild, after traveling cross-country for Game 1, were listless in a 3-0 loss in the opener and not much better in a 3-0 loss in Game 2.

It was the first time a team had lost by shutout in Games 1-2 of the Final since 1945 — and eventually Ducks coach Mike Babcock conceded the layoff had an impact. The Ducks responded to but lost the Final in seven games.

In 2011, the Tampa Bay Lightning had nine days off before facing the Boston Bruins (who had seven days off) in the second round. The Lightning showed little rust in winning the opener 5-2 in Boston, though the favored Bruins won the series in seven games.

It might turn out to be a wash for the Hawks, a veteran team that knows how to handle adversity and has several 30-something players that could use the break. You have to think this ultimately will be a benefit for 36-year-old Marian Hossa, who petered out at this point of last year’s postseason — zero goals, three points and a minus-4 in seven games against the Kings in the Western Conference final. And it’s probably not going to hurt Duncan Keith and the Hawks’ top-four defensive core that figures to carry more weight than ever with Michal Rozsival out of the season with a broken left ankle. There will definitely be an adjustment. But, like the speedy Lightning in 2011, it shouldn’t take the Hawks long to get their legs.

“We want to make sure that we try to bring a different type of intensity than you’ve had over a 10-day stretch and try to recapture how we exited Game 4,” Quenneville said. “That’s easier said than done. I don’t want to handicap exactly how you want to forecast the game —but first periods a lot of times with us … starts are very important.”

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