By nightfall last Sunday, the NHL presence at the 2014 Winter Olympics had vanished into the skies on three charter airline flights, departing at one-hour intervals, destined for Newark and the resumption of regular-season league play.
Soon, on a television screen near you: Tuesday night action between a pair of playoff also-rans that will pale compared to the emotionally-pitched, fast-paced hockey on display recently in Sochi.
But the larger, more broader-based question for the NHL involves the upcoming playoffs, and the impact Olympic participation may have on them.
Some teams, such as the San Jose Sharks, may eventually come to view the Olympic break as a positive, given how three of their mainstays – Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Dan Boyle – were all in the conversation for Canada’s Olympic team, but didn’t make it and thus had the time away from the grind to recharge.
Then, there are the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, who had 10 players in the Olympics, six of whom competed right to the end (Canadians Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith, plus Swedes Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marcus Kruger and Johnny Oduya). Moreover, a seventh, Patrick Kane, was playing last Saturday in the bronze-medal game for the United States.
The St. Louis Blues also had 10 players in the Olympics, but what makes the Blackhawks different is they played well into last June in the Stanley Cup playoffs (thanks to the late start of the season due to the NHL player lockout). Meanwhile, this season’s schedule began six days early to accommodate the 18-day Olympic break.
The Blackhawks have had an admirable start – 84 points after 60 games, tied with the St. Louis Blues for second overall in the Western Conference (St. Louis has three games in hand) – and are safely in the mix for the playoffs. It will permit head coach Joel Quenneville to rest his players as needed, and ensure, to the best of his ability, they are as fresh as possible once the postseason grind starts.
San Jose and the Colorado Avalanche, at 80 and 79 points, respectively, are comfortably positioned as well – far enough ahead that, barring a major collapse, they will make the playoffs as well.
The teams from Nos. 6 to 11 are bunched up, seven points separating six teams, from the Minnesota Wild at 69 points and Winnipeg Jets at 62.
There are 14 teams in the Western Conference this year; and only six will miss the playoffs, but coming out of the Olympic break, four of the teams outside of postseason position are Canadian-based: Vancouver Canucks, Winnipeg, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers. Calgary and Edmonton are jockeying at the bottom of the standings for draft position, while Winnipeg – surging under new head coach Paul Maurice – and Vancouver, slumping after the injury to Henrik Sedin that kept him out of the Olympics – are in the hunt.
But the Olympics taxes players on every level – physically, mentally and emotionally. There have been no real signs of a Stanley Cup hangover in Chicago, yet, but who is to say what will be left in the tank if the ’Hawks are still playing in June?
“I don’t worry about that,” Keith said last Sunday, in the mixed zone after Canada’s gold-medal victory over the Swedes. “At the end of the day, I love playing hockey. I’m happy to be on this [Canadian] team, and proud to play with this group of players. Even in Chicago, we have such a great group. It’s fun to be around the rink.
“It’s what I live for. If I’m not playing hockey, I’m not really doing much, so … obviously, I just want to keep playing hockey.”
The NHL scheduled two outdoor games – one in Vancouver, one in Chicago at Soldier Field – for the first week after Sochi, partly to get the focus back on league play.
Among the players who are difference makers in Chicago, only goaltender Corey Crawford has the luxury of time off during the break.
Dealing with another round of jet lag, and putting the emotional pitch of a fortnight in Sochi behind them is all just part of the job.
“I don’t think it’s going to be difficult,” Keith said. “We’re all professionals. We’ve all done this before. It’s all part of the business, all part of doing our job and getting focused again.”
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