NHL players switch focus to playoff races

The airlift from Sochi, Russia was in full swing on Monday with the last of the NHL players returning from the Winter Olympics. But there won’t much time to rest up before playoff races resume for the league’s 30 teams.

The airlift from Sochi, Russia was in full swing on Monday with the last of the NHL players returning from the Winter Olympics.

But there won’t much time to rest up before playoff races resume for the league’s 30 teams.

The regular-season schedule picks up Tuesday night after a 16-day break when the Carolina Hurricanes visit the Sabres. The game was originally scheduled for Jan. 7 but was postponed due to a snowstorm.

Four games are set for Wednesday night, including a trip to Montreal for Canadian gold medal winning coach Mike Babcock and the Detroit Red Wings. It is not known yet whether the Olympics’ top goaltender Carey Price will be in the net for the Canadiens.

Returning players, especially those who played in Sunday’s Canada-Sweden final or semifinalists like the United States and bronze medallist Finland, will need at least two or three days just to get over jet-lag and get their minds refocused on NHL hockey.

Canadiens centre Tomas Plekanec got back last Thursday after playing for the Czech Republic in Sochi and was glad to get some rest before he resumed skating with his teammates.

“Last time (in 2010), it was in Vancouver, which was a little easier, so we’ll see,” said Plekanec. “Everyone knew it was coming, so we’ll try to be ready for every game.”

Other games Wednesday have the St. Louis Blues, a team loaded with Olympians, visiting the Vancouver Canucks, as well as Los Angeles at Colorado and Boston at Buffalo.

The defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, who visit the New York Rangers on Thursday night, had 10 players at the Games, including six in the final.

“We’ll see how they are when they get back and gauge it,” coach Joel Quenneville told the Blackhawks website. “I would expect that they’ll need a couple of days to enjoy it and celebrate and when we get them back together, I’m sure the focus will go on the right place.

“But a break for them off the ice will probably be healthy, as well. It’s an interesting week for us. We’ll see how they feel and gauge it from there.”

Twelve games are scheduled on Thursday, including the Toronto Maple Leafs’ visit to the New York Islanders, the Red Wings in Ottawa, Los Angeles at Calgary, Phoenix at Winnipeg and Minnesota at Edmonton.

Some players will return for blockbuster events — including the Stadium Series outdoor game Saturday between Canadian captain Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins and the Blackhawks at Soldier Field in Chicago.

Then there is the Heritage Classic on Sunday with the Senators visiting the Canucks at 55,00-seat B.C. Place, which has a retractable roof.

The next few days could also see the trade market heat up. The Olympic roster freeze ended at one minute after midnight on Monday morning, with talk swirling of possible trades involving veterans like Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller or even Rangers captain Ryan Callahan. The NHL trade deadline is March 5.

Some teams lost key players to injuries at the Games, including the Islanders, whose star centre John Tavares suffered ligament and meniscus tears in his left knee that put him out for the rest of the season. He needed crutches to collect his gold medal with Team Canada, then was officially placed on injured reserve on Monday.

The Red Wings lost centre Henrik Zetterberg, likely for the remainder of the regular season, as he left after one game for Sweden with a fragmented disc in his back that required surgery.

The Rangers’ Mats Zuccarello (hand), Penguins defenceman Paul Martin (hand), Columbus defenceman Fedor Tyutin (ankle) and Florida forward Tomas Kopecky (head) were also injured at the Games.

But many teams will also get players back who used the break to heal, including San Jose star Logan Couture, who missed 16 games before the Olympics with a hand injury.

Players who didn’t go to the Olympics have been skating for about a week after taking much-appreciated mid-season vacations.

Teams have between 22 and 25 games left to play in the regular season and there are tight races for the final playoff spots in both conferences.

In the East, Detroit holds the eighth and final spot but is only one point ahead of Ottawa, Washington and Columbus.

Out West, eighth-place Dallas and ninth-place Phoenix each have 64 points — one more than Vancouver and two ahead of Winnipeg.

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