The ice-level dining room at the United Center is within 30 feet of the visiting team's dressing room, and on the way to the press box elevators is a bigger hallway, a good spot to kick the ball around.

European football or Hacky Sack is the universal off-ice pregame warm-up for hockey players. They gather in a circle and try to prevent the ball, or sack, from hitting the ground. It promotes good-natured ribbing and laughter before it becomes time to put on the skates and get serious.

An hour before Wednesday's game against the bonfire-hot Blackhawks, most members of the Avalanche roared with laughter from every great save, or point, made by teammates, and they were heard by virtually everyone inside the nearby mess hall. They sounded like boys on a playground, not men preparing to play the best (non-Olympic) hockey team in the world. They seemed extraordinarily loose.

Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly were not among them. They seemed tight. They were doing their own thing, but separately. They donned earphones, listening to music while jogging and stretching.