CHICAGO — Like any other NHL goaltender, Corey Crawford has found a certain level of comfort working inside hockey's biggest pressure cooker.
But after Sunday's verbal agreement between the players association and owners tentatively ended the 113-day lockout and leaving the league with a shortened regular season, NHL teams – including the Blackhawks – are feeling the crunch not to waste any time.
Teams are expected to begin training camp this weekend once the deal is ratified, officially allowing hockey business to resume. But as several Hawks players worked out privately Monday morning at Johnny's IceHouse on the city's near west side, they had already started to think ahead, understanding with their season basically cut almost in half, time will be of the essence.
And for Crawford, who had a 2.72 goals-against-average in 57 appearances last season, getting back in game shape begins with getting his head right.
"Pressure? You're talking about that already?" Crawford said after Monday morning's skate, drawing a laugh from the horde of reporters and TV cameras surrounding him. "But no – this is fun what we do. I'm looking forward to what's coming up."
What awaits players, though, will be much different than in years past when training camp and the preseason allowed teams to ease into an 82-game regular season. But now, with the season slated to start as early as Jan. 15 following a lockout that lasted nearly four months, players admitted Monday they're moving into uncertain waters.
While players such as Hawks leading scorer Marian Hossa have been working out individually for weeks, returning to full strength as a team will take some time before the abbreviated regular season begins possibly less than a a week after players are reunited officially with their coaches.
The league's Board of Governors is expected to vote on the tentative 10-year deal Wednesday.
And as long as players have been been waiting to return to work, establishing a sense of urgency won't be difficult for the Hawks after being knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by Phoenix.
For Hossa, who said Monday he received a few offers to play in Europe during the lockout after being cleared medically to play in November after suffering a concussion in April, returning to the ice with his teammates can't come fast enough, especially given the relative shortness of the upcoming regular season.
"This is going to be a different season, definitely," Hossa said Monday. "We can't fall asleep in the beginning because there is no 82 games. So every game is going to count and we have to make sure we are ready. It's going to be like a playoff chase now."
Hawks forward Dave Bolland spent the lockout catching up on TV series such as "Homeland," but was among players who returned to the ice Monday. He said even though most players have remained in decent physical shape, it will take time for the Hawks to get into game shape.
While every team in the league will go through the same early-season growing pains, the fact that time is of the essence will make finding a rhythm vital as the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.
"I'm pretty sure now you can't take a night off – you've got to be steady every game," Bolland said. "Every game is going to be a big one, and I think the team that gets [at it] right off the bat and that gets right out fo the gate is going to be the team that is on top."
As anxious as players are to return to business as usual, they know fans may not share the same enthusiasm. Despite the Hawks' loyal fan base, fans grew weary of the sport the longer the lockout lingered on. While players understand their first responsibility is to the franchise and to put a winning product on the ice, they also realize they may have some fans to win over.
Asked Monday if he expected a smattering of boos once the Hawks return to the United Center, Bolland responded immediately, saying, "I hope not."
"I think our fans will stick by us – we're sorry if it took too long and if everything was a waiting game," Bolland said. "But that's the way it goes with union stuff, and I hope our fans are behind us, and I hope we don't get booed."
Hossa expects a mixed reaction, mainly because of how invested fans are in Chicago – a city where loyalists tend to wear their hearts on their sleeve.
"I'm sure lots of fans are glad this is over, lots of fans are frustrated and you cannot blame them," Hossa said. "Obviously, some people are going to be upset but hopefully, we're going to do our best to bring them back in the stands."