— With the Olympic flame snuffed out following Canada's dramatic overtime win over the United States, and hockey's best and a brightest returning to their pro teams, the NHL is in a six-week free fall to the Stanley Cup playoffs. On average, each club will have to play roughly 20 games over 40 days, a pace similar to the exhausting annual postseason schedule that ends in June.
Truth is, that's the greatest test of the Olympics, not the tournament itself but the aftermath. Winning the gold medal is a gargantuan feat, but the tournament takes less than two weeks to complete. For the NHL club that hoists the Cup, it will have been in playoff mode since the start of March, making for a grueling postseason that stretches close to three-and-a-half months.
Some of the story lines to follow once the boys step down from the medal stand in Vancouver:
The Eastern Conference shuffle
Everyone but the lowly Leafs is in playoff position or within at least nine points of the eighth-place Canadiens. All in all, it should make for a scintillating six weeks.
In these situations, go with the clubs that have the best goaltending. I say the Rangers (Henrik Lundqvist), Bruins (Tim Thomas/Tuukka Rask) and Panthers (Tomas Vokoun) squeeze under the rope, joining the likes of Washington, New Jersey, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Ottawa.
The Western Conference shuffle
Other than counting out the sad-sack Oilers, and figuring the Sharks and Blackhawks as locks, it's all up for grabs for a half-dozen playoffs seeds. I'm going with Vancouver, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Colorado, Detroit and Nashville as the rest of the best.
Despite his disappearing act for Finland against the United States in the semifinals, the Flames have a tremendous goalie in Miikka Kiprusoff, but it's pretty obvious something isn't clicking in Calgary — much like Montreal, where GM Bob Gainey finally stepped away from the madness at the start of February.
Wednesday's trade deadline
With so many clubs still in the playoff hunt, conventional wisdom would have it that this should be a fairly quiet day. Don't count on it. The salary cap system has a way of tempering dreams. Shrewd GMs, figuring that there isn't much value in a first-round playoff dismissal, will work feverishly to dump contracts.
Among the hot commodities: Anaheim's Teemu Selanne. The Finnish Flash will be 40 in July and this could be his final chance to get his name on the Cup a second time. A quintessential Ranger pickup. Doubtful that Mike Modano would want to move at this stage of his life and career, but imagine Big Mo mixed into that Sharks lineup?
Alexander the Great
Washington's Alexander Ovechkin looks intent on capturing his second (Art Ross) scoring title. If so, he'll also capture his third consecutive Hart Trophy as the league's MVP. Heck, he may do that even without the scoring title. No one has won three Harts in a row since Wayne Gretzky clicked off eight straight (1980-'87).
Ovie remains the most dynamic and entertaining player in the game. The Caps easily could make it to the Cup finals. But coach Bruce Boudreau still has to prove that he can get his bunch to play reliable defensive hockey that is required of every Cup.
Even the great Oiler squads knew how to ratchet it down in the playoffs.
The league constantly avoids talk of any of their clubs picking up stakes and heading for more fertile financial ground. However, it's clear that some clubs are just too challenged at the gate. Florida, Tampa Bay and Nashville remain on the suspect list.
Phoenix, too, for that matter, and it will be interesting to see what happens out there if the Coyotes do hang on for their first postseason since 2002.
Look for at least one of these cities to make some serious noise about looking for a new home, be it for the 2010-'11 or '11-'12 season. Something's gotta give.
The expansion to the Sun Belt was a fine idea, but it's time to move on.
Front-office extreme makeovers
Upwards of a half-dozen GMs could be looking for jobs once the playoffs are wrapped up. Some could be gone sooner than others, depending on what clubs make the playoff cut. The GMs who run the greatest risk of pink slips: Paul Holmgren (Philadelphia), Glen Sather (N.Y. Rangers), Tampa Bay (Brian Lawton), Ottawa (Bryan Murray), Atlanta (Don Waddell) and Calgary (Darryl Sutter). Sure, a million extenuating circumstances, but club owners don't want to hear extenuating circumstances.
Edmonton's grand Hall
The Oilers will finish last in the standings, setting them up to pick first in the June 25-26 draft, provided they win the lottery. If so, chances are they'll select Taylor Hall, the slick left winger with the Windsor Spitfires (OHL). Hall is represented by Bobby Orr, the legendary Bruins defenseman who played on Boston's last Cup team in '72. Things are so bad these days for the Oil, they might ask to suit up both player and agent.
Canucks still the pick
Yep, I picked 'em back in September and I'm sticking with them, even though I like the Sharks a lot better right now and Chicago sure looks tough and, gee, I suppose Ovechkin is good enough to carry the Caps all the way. Nah. Canucks, baby, all the way.
Great goalie in Roberto Luongo. Love the Sedins, Henrik and Daniel. They could use some help behind the blue line, but ... hey, I'm a dreamer.
Q: If the San Jose Sharks don’t at least make it to the Western Conference finals, do you think Doug Wilson will return as general manager?
— Bryan Chopp from Saratoga, Calif.
A: I think Wilson is safe, Bryan, short of the Sharks blowing it again in the first round.
Had you asked me the same question last spring, just after the Ducks rubbed out the Sharks in Round 1, I might have given you a different answer. But Wilson, who took control of the Sharks
starting with the 2003-'04 season, made a brilliant move with the acquisition of high-scoring Dany Heatley, adding to one of the game's most proficient and potent offenses.
The Sharks have been around the top of the Western Conference all season. All of which guarantees nothing come playoff time, as the Sharks know all too well. However, it's a solid franchise, built to compete well in the post-lockout era, and it's positioned well to have a very strong postseason. I'm not sure what else a GM can do (a question I am sure Wilson has asked himself repeatedly during his tenure).
Q: It’ll be good to see Peter Forsberg and Jaromir Jagr back in North America for the Olympics. Which player is more likely to make a return to the NHL?
— John from Toronto
A: Frankly, John, I have my doubts that we'll see either Forsberg or Jagr back in the NHL. They are two exceptional athletes, sure Hockey Hall of Famers, but contrary to how we remember them in their NHL days, they are getting old. Jagr just turned 38. Forsberg will be 37 in July.
OK, what's age but a number, right? Well, I just don't see a real incentive for either player to come back to the Original 30. Jagr is in Russia, finishing up year No. 2 of a very lucrative deal with Omsk Avangard. Last I looked, he was averaging less than a point per game in the KHL. So it's not like he's lighting it up every night and enticing an NHL club to woo him back to North America when his Russian deal comes to an end.
Forsberg, hindered for years now with foot and ankle injuries, is back playing with Modo, his former Swedish club and he has been productive thus far. The more he scores, the more rumors will heat up about a possible return here. But with that history of injuries, and the fact that he hasn't played regularly over here since 2006-'07, I don't get the sense that NHL clubs are eager to bring back Foppa.
Q: With the Capitals running away with the Southeast Division, I was wondering what the biggest margin ever for a division winner over the second-place team?
— Matthew from Clarksville, Tenn.
A: You're right, Matthew, the Caps are running away in a very weak (impotent?) Southeast Division. They have a nearly a 30-point advantage over the second-placed Tampa Bay.
However, the Caps still have to make a lot of hay to break the standing record for a divisional ''win''. The 1977-78 Canadiens, then in the Norris Division, finished with a 59-10-11 record, good for 129 points. The Red Wings that season finished second in the Norris with 78 points. Net difference: 51 points.
The Habs capped that great season with yet another Stanley Cup, their third in a string of four they collected, 1976-'79.