Penalty Minutes: Teams could contend with Olympic hangover

Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller won 14 straight games earlier in the season, tying the second-best mark in NHL history. Hiller will represent Switzerland in the Olympics.

Mike Strasinger/Mike Strasinger-USA TODAY Sports

The best record in the NHL at the Olympic break belongs to the Anaheim Ducks.

Like many top teams, the Ducks’ best players are traveling halfway across the world to compete in the Olympics. Canadians Ryan Getzlaf, the Ducks’ captain, and Corey Perry rank second and tied for sixth in the league in scoring, respectively. The group also includes Swiss goalie Jonas Hiller, American defenseman Cam Fowler, Swedish forward Jakob Silfverberg and Finnish defenseman Sami Vatanen and wing Teemu Selanne, the latter being the Ducks’ spiritual leader.

At seven players, only four teams have more (Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis each have 10; Montreal has eight). All of it raises questions as to how the players — not just the Ducks’, but every team’s — will fare once they return from what is expected to be a physically and emotionally exhausting tournament.

Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said that when he coached the Washington Capitals following the 2010 tournament in Vancouver, his team went 15-2-3 down the stretch to finish with the top regular season record in the league. However, he offered a word of caution.

"But a couple of the Olympians, actually, started off very slowly in that situation and, I mean, I don’t know how it’s going to affect (them) and that was in Canada, the Olympics," he said. "So now it’s a little bit farther away. I don’t know how that’s going to affect any of them at this stage. But we’ll make sure they get the right amount of time off before they start participating with us when they go over there. A lot can depend if they make the medal round or if they don’t make the medal round. They’ll be home quicker so we’ll see."

With the Ducks, how those players adjust could be of particular concern. Take Hiller, who was a top performer at the ’10 Olympics. Switzerland took favorite Canada, the host country and eventual gold-medal winner, to a shootout with his goaltending at the forefront. Coming back from the ‘€˜10 tournament, Hiller went 0-4-1 in his first five games that season. He finished the season 4-6-2 after the Olympics and the Ducks missed qualifying for the playoffs by six points.

"Yeah, we just made it to the (quarterfinals) so we had a few extra days to recover and also refocus," said Hiller, who won 14 straight games earlier this season, tying the second-best mark in NHL history. "But, yeah, I think everybody’s going to come home with a lot of emotion. Hopefully, mostly positives but, yeah, it’s a big thing and you can’t let down after that. You have to find a way to refocus yourself and get into a groove in the regular season again.

"I think we have enough players in here that are willing enough to do it and really want to win and really about winning, so I’m not too worried about it. But, sure, sometimes I think it would be nice to have a couple days off and have a little rest but at the same time I’m super-excited and trying not to look too far ahead and take it as it comes."

Boudreau was unsure if a key player like rookie defenseman Hampus Lindholm, who is not competing in the Olympics, would return from the break rejuvenated or as if he would be starting all over again, like the first day of training camp. He was similarly unsure of the veterans.

"Are they coming back high and really pumped up to play or are they going to come back after losing and say, ‘€˜I hate losing and I want to win’? Or are they going to be exhausted?" Boudreau asked. "I don’t know the status over there. I mean, and we’ll see. Living quarters aren’t what they’re normally used to and I know what the pressure will be immense on all the Canadian and U.S. squad for sure.

"How they handle it, how much they play, how hard they practice — all of those things are going to be factors when they come back home."

All of them wildcards, to be sure.

Lo and behold, the New York Rangers have won seven of their past 10.

At the two-week Olympic break, the Rangers, who had muddled through much of the season, sit in second place in the Metropolitan Division (four points ahead of ninth-place Columbus). At present, the Rangers’ first-round opponent in the Stanley Cup Playoffs would be long-time rival Philadelphia, in a match that fans and league executives alike would celebrate. (The two rivals have not met in the postseason since the 1997 Eastern Conference finals when the likes of Eric Lindros and Brian Leetch were still suiting up.)

Gone are the early season woes of goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who has returned to his Vezina Trophy-winning form of the past. Owing to Lundqvist’s early season struggles, "The King" is hard to find in almost any of the league’s leading statistical categories. His best showing comes in the shutout column, in which his three are tied for eighth.

However, Lundqvist is now up to 22 wins (to go with 18 losses) along with a 2.44 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. Following a personal four-game winless streak, Lunqvist began to up his game in mid-December, losing only four times in regulation since then (13-4-2). Lundqvist goes into the Olympic tournament, where he will attempt to backstop his native Sweden to a second gold medal, with wins in five straight games and in seven out of eight. In five of his past seven victories, Lundqvist has allowed one goal or no goals, all of which could be bad news for opposing countries.

"Mentally now I’m switching gears — I’m putting on the yellow and blue," Lundqvist was quoted as saying in the New York Daily News, "and I’m not going to talk to anybody on this team (the Rangers) except (Swedish teammate Carl) Hagelin."

Some have praised the steady hand of first-year Rangers coach Alain Vigneault in handling the team. While the drama surrounding the contractual status of captain Ryan Callahan, a U.S. Olympian, has consumed much of the coverage of the team — will he sign an extension or will the Rangers trade him? — Lunqvist has simply gone about his business and given the Rangers a chance to win on a nightly basis.

Perhaps if the Rangers continue to do well coming out of the Olympic break, they could thank the Stadium Series. Entering those two outdoor games against the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders at Yankee Stadium, the Rangers had lost two straight. They swept those two games by 7-3 and 2-1 scores and picked up momentum for there.

The trick will be to continue their hot hand coming out of the Olympic break.

In the 1980s, we had the Canada Cup and one of greatest hockey games of all time, a 6-5 win by Canada over the Soviet Union in the 1987 final with Mario Lemieux notching his memorable game-winner. In the ‘€˜90s and early 2000s, the tournament morphed into the World Cup of Hockey, which also showcased the game at its best, especially the United States’ victory in ‘€˜96.

Amid all of that, NHL players’ participation in the Olympics began in 1998 in Nagano, without the kind of results and positive publicity the league might have hoped for. The United States and Canada did not perform very well and there was the unfortunate incident of some U.S. players’ trashing their dormitory.

Subsequent Olympic tournaments fared much better in Salt Lake in 2002 and Vancouver in 2010, but a question that is seriously being raised is if the Sochi Olympics might be the last in which NHL players compete for a while.

When one of the league’s most influential owners, Philadelphia’s Ed Snider, came out last Friday and said, "I mean, I hate ‘em," according to the Philadelphia Daily News, then the 2018 Olympics in South Korea might not have the brightest prospects in terms of NHL players competing in them.

The issues are that NHL players, whose expensive contracts are being paid for by their respective clubs, can and do get hurt during the tournament. The NHL schedule before and after the tournament is compacted to make room for the two-week Olympic break and that compacted schedule can fatigue players and increase the risk of injury — not to mention make tickets harder to sell. Then there is simply putting the league on hiatus during a time of year when it has the opportunity to shine: the NFL season has ended, Major League Baseball has yet to begin and NCAA basketball has yet to ramp up. In essence, it’s the NHL’s turn to shine but it shutters itself.

On Tuesday, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said that the league would likely decide whether to continue its participation within the next six months. The idea was that back in ’98, the league needed the Olympic publicity. Now, it is much better positioned.

"We’re a different company today than we were in 1998, a different stage in our evolution and development," Daly told the paper. "It has a much higher profile. As a business, we’re more successful. We’re much more visible on the world stage. We’re much more of a media company and less of a licensee of rights. I think that’s a factor when you consider whether the Olympics make sense for you going forward."

That doesn’t mean elite international hockey competition will go away. It just means it might return in the form of the Canada/World Cup — during the summer when it doesn’t negatively impact the NHL season. It also could mean games could be televised at much more friendly times for North American audiences, as opposed to 4:30 a.m. when some of the Sochi games will be televised on the West Coast.

One can almost hear the echoes of the Canada Cup returning, with the late, great Dan Kelly intoning, "Mario Lemieux!"

1. Anaheim: The Ducks ended a three-game skid by downing Nashville 5-2 in their final game before the break.

2. St. Louis: At 1.47 per game, the Blues own the league’s best points percentage.

3. Pittsburgh: The Penguins announced the sobering news last week that defenseman Kris Letang suffered a stroke.

4. Chicago: Blackhawks forwards Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews were paired on a line at Canadian Olympic practice with the New York Rangers’ Rick Nash.

5. Colorado: If forward Matt Duchene is scratched at the Olympics, how will it affect him once the NHL season resumes?

26. New York Islanders: The Islanders were outscored 9-4 in their last two games before the break.

27. Calgary: The Flames are 6-3-1 in their past 10 games, ninth-best in the NHL.

28. Florida: The Panthers’ Olympian Aleksander Barkov (Finland) will be one of the youngest in the tournament at age 18.

29. Edmonton: Oilers’ Olympians are not exactly household names: Ales Hemsky (Czech), Anton Belov (Russia) and Martin Marincin (Slovakia).

30. Buffalo: NHL trading deadline is March 5, eight days after the league resumes play following the Olympics. How many more games will goalie Ryan Miller play in a Sabres uniform?

This Olympic contest looms as a huge early test in the preliminary round.

The host Russians face immense pressure, which captain Alex Ovechkin was playing off with a relaxed face on the first day of practice on Monday. The Americans will surely face an early emotional surge from the Russians, which they must withstand. The Americans’ choice in goal, either Buffalo’s Ryan Miller or Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick, remains to be seen. The American forward corps has some firepower, but is mostly a gritty bunch.

It will be interesting to see how U.S. coach Dan Bylsma configures his lines and whether he opts for a checking line to go against Russia’s powerhouse line of Ovechkin (Washington), Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh) and Alex Semin (Carolina). If so, the best candidate might be that of Dustin Brown (Los Angeles), Paul Stastny (Colorado) and T.J. Oshie (St. Louis). Expect the U.S. defense pair of Ryan Suter (Minnesota), who should excel with his skating ability on the larger ice surface, and Kevin Shattenkirk (St. Louis) to be out as much as possible against the Russian’s top line. Of course, Russia has scoring almost everywhere: Ilya Kovalchuk and KHL star Alex Radulov are on its second line.

The U.S. will have to try and exploit Russian defensive deficiencies, if it can.

In a 5-2 win last Thursday against Vancouver, Pacioretty became the first player in NHL history to earn two penalty shots in one period. The U.S. Olympian took penalty shots less than two minutes apart, at 11:47 and 13:38 of the second period. Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo stopped both. Undeterred, Pacioretty recorded a hat trick in 16:16 of time on ice. He finished plus-2 with six shots, two hits and a giveaway.

Note to U.S. Olympic coach Dan Bylsma: If a shootout is called for in a game between his team and Canada, don’t pick Pacioretty against Luongo, a Canadian Olympian.

Honorable mention: Martin Erat, Washington. In a 3-0 win against New Jersey on Saturday, the right wing scored his first goal of the season, an empty-netter, at 18:13 of the third period. The 32-year-old averaged 19 goals per season for eight straight seasons with Nashville before falling on hard times the past two seasons. Erat’s most recent goal came on April 16, 2013. Erat, who has asked for a trade for the second consecutive season but not received one yet in Washington, nonetheless has proved fairly productive as a playmaker in a limited role, earning 21 assists in 51 games.

Dishonorable mention: Jared Cowen, Ottawa. In a 7-2 loss to Boston on Saturday, Cowen, selected ninth overall in the 2009 NHL Draft, posted a team-low minus-4, his worst mark of the season, in 20:44 of time on ice. He also had four hits and one blocked shot. Cowen was on ice for five even-strength goals against his team and also for the Bruins’ only power-play goal while also being on ice for a goal by his team. That means that of the nine goals scored, he was on ice for seven of them. The 6-foot-5, 228-pound, 23-year-old defenseman ranks third on the Senators this season in time on ice per game at 20:55 and fifth among Senators’ defensemen in plus/minus at minus-2.

Ottawa enters the Olympic break one point behind out of the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference.