McConnell's Blog: With Olympics Over, Focus Shifts Back to NHL, Stretch Run
GLENDALE -- Adios Olympic break.
The days of waking up early to watch hockey games or setting the DVR are over. So are the days of catching up on projects put on hold by the National Hockey League’s six-month schedule.
Bathroom renovation? Check.
Quality time with the family? Check.
Subsequently driving family nuts with all my free time? CHECK!
Thankfully for many (including my loved ones), focus shifts back to the NHL season and the stretch run for the Phoenix Coyotes.
It begins Thursday night in Winnipeg, when the team gets back on the ice for the first of 24 games that will determine whether or not they qualify for the post-season. Currently, the Coyotes sit in ninth place in the Western Conference standings. They are tied with eighth-place Dallas with 64 points, but the Stars win the tiebreaker because they have one more ROW.
The break itself came at the perfect time for a number of reasons, not the least of which for the team’s five players representing various countries at the Games in Sochi. Those experiences should have positive effects as well.
Goaltender Mike Smith made the Canadian Olympic roster and experienced the Games and its stage as the team’s third netminder. And even though he didn’t see any game action, he practiced regularly against some of the best players in the world. That means he saw plenty of pucks in practice, allowing him to stay sharp and ready to go once the NHL season cranks up again. Smith and the rest of the Olympic goaltenders should have an edge over their idle counterparts who might have turned to a warm, sunny beach during the break. Their biggest challenge could be overcoming the jet lag created by travelling across 11 time zones.
The same could be said for the other Coyotes Olympians who experienced hockey on the world stage. Oliver Ekman-Larsson returns home with a silver medal from Team Sweden, runner-up to the Canadians for Olympic gold. OEL is another player who returns richer from his experience in battling through an international tournament gauntlet before ending up in the championship game.
Forward Lauri Korpikoski heads back to the Valley with bronze medal and a two-week stint in which he rediscovered his offense and played his usual solid game on the defensive side of the puck. Could the “Korpedo” provide additional secondary scoring for the team down the stretch?
Both Martin Hanzal and Zybynek Michalek failed to medal for Team Czech Republic, but will bank their Olympic experiences as another opportunity to compete against top-flight competition. Both are top-end players in the team’s lineup who will benefit from their experiences playing against some of the top talent in the world.
As for those players who enjoyed the 18-day break from games, none of them figure to benefit as much as Shane Doan. The captain came down with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in early December and missed several weeks while recuperating and gaining back his strength. The Olympic break afforded him a chance to rest and recharge and be as close to 100 percent since the illness. Prior to leaving the lineup, Doan had been off to one of his best starts, scoring 11 goals and tallying 20 points over an 18-game stretch. Playing “OK” has never been acceptable to Doan. So it should be interesting to watch his progression as the Coyotes enter the stretch run.
Which bring us to Head Coach Dave Tippett.
A master of lineup tweaks and in-game adjustments, one of Tippett’s challenges out of the break will be roster management. The team began its post-Olympic practices last week. And with the five Coyotes Olympians still competing in Russia, the emphasis was on conditioning and ramping up the group to pre-tournament levels. Now, as the Olympians arrive back in the Valley, his next challenge will be incorporating the Sochi quintet back into practice after allowing for a built in recovery time from travel. Flying across 11 time zones will have a definite effect on their bodies in the days ahead.
Yet if anyone can pull it off with great efficiency, it’s Tippett, who often values quality rest over practice time. It is also likely the Portland to Phoenix shuttle will be working overtime in the near future as the team shuttles in fresh bodies to help in the transition. Last week, the team recalled defensemen Brandon Gormley and Chris Summers while shipping David Rundblad to the American Hockey League on a conditioning assignment.
So while some of us recharged over the break, the Coyotes hockey brass was busy with team evaluations while drafting a plan on how to maximize their chances of reaching the post-season and minimizing the distractions of coming out of the Olympic break.
And considering their track record, there’s no reason not to believe this squad will be in a good position to play well down the stretch and (hopefully) beyond the April 13th regular-season finale.
As my television colleague Todd Walsh likes to say, “Enjoy the Ride.”