Who was helped and who was hurt by the Olympic break? Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun drop the figurative gloves over it.
BURNSIDE: Greetings, my friend. Can you believe that it's been more than a month since the Olympic hockey tournament began? We wondered how that break would effect NHL teams and, as we head into the final month of the regular season, it's obvious in at least a couple of cases where teams really took advantage of the break -- and the fact they did not have a lot of players participating in the Olympics -- to jump-start their stretch run. I know you think the San Jose Sharks, a team you have spent a lot of time covering in the playoffs (there's actually a bronze statue of you and mascot S.J. Sharkie in front of the SAP Center), really took advantage of having Dan Boyle, Joe Thornton and Logan Couture, just coming off injury, rest up during the break. As of Friday morning, the Sharks are 6-1-1 since the break ended and have won four in a row to pull into a tie with Anaheim atop the Pacific Division, no small achievement given the Ducks' big lead at one point and the importance of finishing first and avoiding the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs.
LEBRUN: I'd like to move to San Jose in retirement, a little secret I'll share with you. But, yes, the Sharks have been on fire since the break, using time off perfectly as Logan Couture and Raffi Torres were able to have extra time before coming back from injuries. But I think the older guys, such as Thornton and Boyle, really benefited. It brings me back to a comment NHLPA boss Donald Fehr told me during a chat we had in Sochi during the Olympics. I was asking him why or how such a majority of players seem to favor Olympic participation, even though such a small minority of the membership actually gets to play in them. He had a few responses to that but one of them, which I had never thought of, is that many of the veteran players around the league say they appreciate the Olympic break, the actual time off, to rest their bones and bumps and bruises. In non-Olympic years, they just don't have that opportunity, the All-Star break not really counting as much time off. So, certainly, I'd say with the Sharks sending only four players to Sochi -- as much as the team took a hit to its pride, given how many talented players the Sharks have -- I'd San Jose has greatly benefited from having so many key players rest up.
BURNSIDE: One of the teams that's been interesting for me to watch coming out of the break is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Have you heard of them? After starting the post-Olympic break 0-1-2, the Leafs have won four of five, including a monster come-from-behind win Thursday night in Los Angeles that halted the Kings' eight-game winning streak. Indeed the Kings, as we speak, have the best post-break record in the league at 7-1. But what's fascinating for me about the Leafs is that they didn't have much in the way of Olympic representation but the guys who've been the catalyst to their strong push into second place in the Atlantic Division have been U.S. Olympians Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. You and I talked on our podcast this week about the fact Kessel might well have worked his way into Hart Trophy discussion (behind Sidney Crosby, of course). The thing is both van Riemsdyk and Kessel, who played on the same line in Sochi and of course play on the same line in Toronto, weren't very good as the Americans were shut out in their final two games in Sochi. Do you think Kessel, who was pointedly criticized for not delivering in the clutch in Russia, has used that as motivation to ensure the Leafs are playoff-bound? Or is that reading too much into it?
LEBRUN: I think that's reading too much into it. Fact is, the Kessel we're seeing now is the same one who was producing on a nightly basis for Toronto before the Olympics, which is why he's garnered Hart Trophy talk (although, as you say, Crosby will definitely win in a landslide; and I hope Ryan Getzlaf gets on the ballot as well). Toronto's big performances on the road trip in California have them, as of Friday, three points ahead of both Montreal and Tampa in the Atlantic Division. Speaking of post-Olympic performances, the Habs are only 3-4-0 since the break and you can certainly point to the absence of franchise netminder Carey Price as the biggest reason. Price, named the Olympics' top netminder after a stellar performance in leading Canada to gold, was secretly nicked up in Sochi and hasn't been able to get into the Montreal net since returning, although it sounds as though he will finally be back soon. That Habs team needs a healthy Carey Price to have any chance over the next month or two.
BURNSIDE: Fair point on Kessel. It's been interesting to look at some of the Russian players and their performance after the break, given their spectacular flame-out in the quarterfinals against Finland. Evgeni Malkin has a five-game point streak as of Friday but the former scoring champ and playoff MVP has just one goal since the break and he has talked candidly about the disappointment of the Olympic tournament. The NHL's top goal scorer, Alex Ovechkin, had three goals in his first two games after the Olympics -- where he scored just once, in Russia's first game -- but has just one goal in his last six games for the slumping Caps. Olympic hangover? You tell me, my friend. On the other side of the coin, the guy who has impressed me mightily has been Semyon Varlamov, who was lifted in that quarterfinal loss to Finland in favor of Sergei Bobrovsky. Lots of consternation from Avalanche fans about Varlamov's mental state post-Olympics and yet he has been dynamic as the Avs have overtaken the Chicago Blackhawks and now sit in second place in the Central Division. The Avalanche are 6-2 since the break and Varlamov has collected five of those wins and might be the favorite now, along with Tuukka Rask of Boston, to win the Vezina Trophy. Are you surprised?
LEBRUN: Just can't be surprised anymore by anything Colorado does. The Avs are for real. Period. You mentioned Rask, and it’s interesting to note how some of the Finns have played since their emotional bronze-medal win in Sochi. Rask has been sensational in Boston, Mikael Granlund has continued his terrific play in Minnesota and gold ol' graybeard Kimmo Timonen might be playing his best hockey of the season in Philadelphia since returning home with a bronze. But what remains to be seen, because this is still very much a small sampled size of 7-8 games played per NHL team since the break, is whether there's a fatigue factor with some of the players used often in Sochi. That usually wouldn't show itself until a few weeks from now and I'm thinking in particular of all the Team Canada and Team USA guys on both Chicago and St. Louis. The Blues had contemplated sitting out some of their Olympians after Sochi but the players in question convinced the coaching staff they were fine to play. We'll see whether that was a wise decision or not in a few weeks.
Have a great weekend, pal, enjoy the best time of the season here with the stretch drive.