After two weeks of the high-octane environment in Sochi, Russia for the Winter Olympics, the NHL regular season resumes on Tuesday night with a makeup game between the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes. For the rest of the teams, the grind begins again on Wednesday or Thursday. The trade deadline is March 5, so that’s rapidly approaching for teams either looking to plan for the future or push for the playoffs.
The NHL regular season ends April 13. Teams entered the Olympic break with somewhere between 57 and 60 games played out of the 82-game season. For some teams, that means playing as many as 25 games over the next 46 days. The condensed schedule is going to take a toll on a lot of teams, but especially those that were well represented in Sochi. Some teams have to deal with injuries from the Olympics, while others simply have to deal with a lot of players trying to return to normal after the adrenaline-filled tournament. The games held tremendous importance in Sochi. The playoff push will as well, but, as a player, it’s extremely difficult to go from playing in that environment to getting fired up to play on a nightly basis with your team in the NHL.
As a result, some teams definitely enter this week in a better position to compete than others. Teams that sent a lot of players to Sochi did so because they have a lot of talent and good players. Those teams will eventually get back on track, but it may take some time between jet lag, fatigue, and getting acclimated once again to the NHL game and the NHL pace.
One team to keep an eye on in the near future is the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks sent 10 players to Sochi. Seven of them played in medal round games, including three of their top six defensemen. For Patrick Kane, it was an especially difficult period of time. Kane was extremely close to his grandfather, who passed away the week prior to the Olympics. Kane missed time with the Blackhawks to attend services and was then whisked away halfway around the world to play for Team USA. The Americans had to be disappointed with their performance and Kane is no exception.
For gold medalists Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp, and Jonathan Toews, there’s a sense of accomplishment that may carry over into a post-Olympic bump, but the Blackhawks are securely in playoff position. They return from the break to play at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers on Thursday before opening up a three-game homestand. Four games in seven days could prove to be a tough stretch for the Blackhawks.
Another team that could struggle out of the break is the Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings aren’t used to being in the position of having to fight for their playoff lives, but that’s the case here. They’ll likely be without Henrik Zetterberg for some time after he had to leave Sochi with a back injury. Pavel Datsyuk was great for Team Russia but was not 100 percent and likely came back too early in order to play in his native country.
The Red Wings also had 10 Olympians, although Johan Franzen could not participate. Five guys, plus Zetterberg and Franzen, were named to Team Sweden, who lost the Gold Medal Game to Canada. Not only do they have the disappointment of finishing second, but they played a long tournament. Without Franzen and Zetterberg, the Red Wings have really had difficulty this season. Also, head coach Mike Babcock just led Team Canada to the gold medal, so he had a long Olympics as well.
The Red Wings also open the stretch run with a three-game road trip. That’s a very small turnaround for players who were in Russia to get their families situated or catch up before the season begins again.
The St. Louis Blues could stumble out of the break also. They sent eight players to Sochi, including three of their top six defensemen. Vladimir Sobotka was injured prior to the tournament, otherwise he would have been there. David Backes and TJ Oshie were outstanding for the US team and spent a ton of effort for their country. It will be difficult for them to transition back to normalcy. Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Pietrangelo, and Jay Bouwmeester all played big minutes for their countries on defense.
Like the Red Wings, the Blues have to go out on the road to start the stretch run, with a west coast trip to Vancouver, Anaheim, and Phoenix. Those are three difficult places to win at on the road.
One of the collateral damages of the Olympics was injuries. The Islanders lost Jonathan Tavares for the season, but they weren’t going to get a playoff spot anyway. They may be worth fading, if you’re okay with playing the heavy chalk against them as they may start to play for draft position. Mats Zuccarello was lost for the Rangers, who are in the thick of the playoff chase. Of the eight teams in playoff positions, the Rangers have the fewest goals scored and Zuccarello’s absence won’t help there. Fedor Tyutin will miss two to three weeks for the Blue Jackets with an ankle sprain.
On the flip side, there are some teams that could really benefit from the Olympic Break. One of the most notable is the Tampa Bay Lightning. They’ll get Steven Stamkos back from his horrific broken leg and got some well needed time off for goaltender Ben Bishop. Bishop is a full-time starter in the NHL for the first time and he’s been one of the league’s biggest surprises. He was almost named as the third goaltender for Team USA, but the team took Jimmy Howard instead. That will be a big benefit to the Bolts. The Panthers lost Aleksander Barkov, their 2013 first-round pick who was playing big minutes for them.
Martin St. Louis didn’t play much as the 13th forward for Canada, but he did get a gold medal for his efforts and that’s sure to light a fire under the 38-year-old for a big playoff push. Valtteri Filppula is close to returning from a broken ankle. The schedule is brutal for the Lightning with four road games in six days, including the second game of a back-to-back in Denver with the altitude, but it could lean to value on the Lightning as a road underdog.
The Columbus Blue Jackets are poised to make a big charge. Sergei Bobrovsky didn’t disappoint in Sochi even though his team did and he was able to make a quick return to the U.S. He means more to the Jackets than any other player and his mindset will be right as the NHL schedule returns. The Tyutin loss will have an impact, but not as much as one might think. The Jackets have a highly-motivated defenseman in Jack Johnson who was snubbed from the U.S. roster. When asked if he watched the Olympics, Johnson said that “he didn’t need to”. The time off will help him and so will his focus.
None of the Blue Jackets forwards were part of the Sochi games. At this point in the season, health is everything. The Blue Jackets are very healthy minus Tyutin and their defensive depth is enough to get them by. Look for a big push out of the Jackets, who were one of the league’s better teams for a couple months preceding the break. The schedule helps as well as the Jackets play a couple of the league’s worst, New Jersey and Florida, to ease back into the grind.
While Chicago and St. Louis may run into trouble, the team that will benefit the most is the Colorado Avalanche. They only sent four players to the Olympics and, while they all played big roles, the players they sent were young and should have plenty left in the tank. Their home ice advantage is going to play up in the final month and a half of the season because of the altitude. Teams will be playing a condensed schedule and that means more stretches of back-to-backs or one day in between games. The Avs also return to play with a three-game homestand. They are in great shape to take advantage of the situation.
It’s an exciting time in the NHL with the trade deadline coming up and things are far more comfortable in locker rooms of teams that know they’ll be in the playoff picture. Bad teams, like the Sabres and Flames, often have players wondering where they’ll be playing and that leads to distractions. Add in a return from the Olympics and a highly-contested playoff chase with a condensed schedule and there are sure to be some great spots to bet hockey over the next few weeks.
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.