- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 12, 2011

ARLINGTON, Va. -– When the Chicago Blackhawks went to the White House on Friday to meet President Obama, they were without -– among others -– Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Antti Niemi, key pieces of their Stanley Cup-winning team.

And yet the Blackhawks can still smile about more than just their 2010 accomplishment. They’re fifth in the Western Conference this season and rolling along. That’s due in large part to still having Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith around.

“They lost a lot of guys, but their core group’s still there,” Capitals forward Boyd Gordon said about 24 hours before the two teams face off at Verizon Center. “They won the Cup for a reason, so they know how to win, and [Sunday’s] game is gonna be a big test for us.”

Gone from the lineup that won Game 6 of the Cup Finals in Philadelphia are Versteeg, Byfuglien, Niemi, John Madden, Andrew Ladd, Nick Boynton and Ben Eager. But in spite of some struggles -– rough patches that most NHL teams hit –- Chicago hasn’t missed a beat.

Caps coach Bruce Boudreau even drew comparisons between the Blackhawks and his team when explaining how Chicago has done this.

“They have guys like we did in Hershey –- they had guys like we did in Hershey, they have guys who were ready to make the move [to the NHL],” Boudreau said, pointing to players like Troy Brouwer (34 points) and Brian Bickell (34 points). “These kind of guys were full-time ready. So they knew what they were doing when they made those trades. They knew they had to get rid of some money, but they didn’t hurt themselves.”

And these guys still have Stanley Cup rings. Only two Caps players share that distinction -– Mike Knuble and Jason Arnott. So as much as Washington is rolling along, too, having won seven in a row, it’s still special to face the champs.

“When you play a championship team, there’s always a little bit more intensity there,” Gordon said. “I think everyone tries to beat the Stanley Cup champion.”

While the Blackhawks got the chance to see Obama and be honored at the White House this week, that championship is in the past. Still, the team that’s coming into Verizon Center Sunday afternoon has won eight of 10 (the past two games featured a loss and a shootout loss).

With the Caps enjoying their streak, it’s worth wondering if this could be a Cup Finals preview, though Boudreau certainly didn’t want to get ahead of himself. Instead, his players are looking at this as a test –- and a chance to prove something.

“We’ve been playing decent hockey as of late; we have a nice win streak going and we know they’re coming in and they’re fighting for every point they can get right now for the playoff picture and we are too,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “We look at it as a big test -– we know how good they are, we know what they can do, and we definitely do wanna set a precedent around the league.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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