How long does an Olympic high or hangover last?
Most Canadian fans were able to take care of both in less than a day. They could have been roaring drunk by mid-morning Eastern time last Sunday, when Team Canada won the men’s hockey gold medal, and back to normal by the time their heads hit the pillow that night.
As far as the participants go, we will find out once the NHL gets into full swing this week.
For every player returning to North America riding a wave of success, such as the Canadians and Finns, there is another dealing with the bitterness of failed expectations, like the Americans, Russians and, to a lesser extent, the Swedes. How these players are able to deal with these emotions and either set them aside or use them as fuel for the NHL playoff race will have much impact on their teams’ chances.
The most interesting teams to watch in this regard are the Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings, Washington Capitals, St. Louis Blues, Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets. All had significant numbers of players and coaches who returned home either in triumph or disappointment.
There was little middle ground. The Chicago Blackhawks had 10 Olympians but only one, U.S. forward Patrick Kane, who was part of an out-and-out debacle.
Most intriguing are the Penguins, since their head coach is included among the disappointed. Dan Bylsma was expected to direct the most explosive American team in history. Instead, Bylsma and Penguins defencemen Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin were part of one of the worst meltdowns, losing a close one to Canada (1-0 in the semi-finals) and then rolling over and dying 5-0 in the bronze-medal game against Finland. (And Martin, who actually missed those two games, came home with what is thought to be a broken hand.)
Also part of the question marks in Pittsburgh is forward Evgeni Malkin. He may have abundant talent but there is no doubt now he has no leadership skills, and not much resolve, after being one of the most prominent no-shows on the Russian team – which went into the Olympics under heavy pressure to win gold on home soil and fell flat.
However, the experiences of this group are countered by forwards Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Jussi Jokinen and 19-year-old defenceman Olli Maatta.
Nothing more needs to be said about Crosby and Kunitz (except perhaps heh-heh to critics of the latter’s selection to Team Canada), but the Olympics was a coming-out party for Maatta. He was already starting to turn heads in the NHL, with 23 points in 57 games as a rookie, but in Sochi a much wider audience got to appreciate his skill with puck as part of Finland’s bronze-medal effort.
Bylsma’s judgment was questioned by a few of the U.S. players after the loss to Canada. But it will be up to him to overcome his own disappointment, marshal the players on each side of the Olympic equation and keep the Pens in front in the Eastern Conference.
In Detroit, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock will have to rally a large group of players he beat for the gold medal as coach of Team Canada. There were five Wings on the Swedish team, including centre Henrik Zetterberg, who went down during the tournament and is now out for at least six weeks after back surgery.
Babcock told The Detroit Free Press he would tell the returning Swedes to simply worry about getting back into the NHL grind. They will have to do it quickly, since the Red Wings hold the eighth and last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of the Ottawa Senators, Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals.
“I don’t quite know how how we’re going to do it,” Babcock said, “but we’re going to do it.”
One way might be by watching Columbus and Washington fade under their own disappointment.
The Blue Jackets have four Russian players, including goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and defenceman Fedor Tyutin (who suffered a knee injury and will be out two to three weeks). The Caps have four players with notable Olympic disappointments, including Russian star Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the top centre for both Sweden and the Caps.
The shocking last-minute banishment of Backstrom from the gold-medal game for taking an innocuous allergy medication is the sort of disappointment that can linger.
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