As the sprint prior to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi begins to come to a grinding halt, the Minnesota Wild find themselves in an all too familiar position. Despite going on a tear heading into the break, they have struggled to make significant ground on the leaders on the Western Conference. The equally consistent play of Chicago, St. Louis and Colorado has left the Wild as the 7th seed if the playoffs were to start today.
It is difficult to predict exactly what the Olympic break will bring for the franchise. 5 Wild players are headed to Sochi to endure a grueling two weeks of hockey against the best competition in the world. Upon return, they will immediately be thrust into the home stretch of the NHL regular season and expected to bring intensity every night. This may be difficult for the 5 players because of the emotional battles they will endure in Russia as they compete for their home country’s flag as opposed to a city in the United States. The task for Mike Yeo and company will be to get the player’s minds on the stretch run of the season.
As for the players who are not fortunate enough to compete for their respective countries, they will be taking trips to tropical destinations to relax or returning home to visit family during the mid-season break. It can be a great time to go home in order to nurse the bumps and bruises that may be hampering them. On the other hand, two weeks off from games with fewer tune-up sessions can be difficult to bounce back from when they return to continue the season. Again, it will be the duty of Yeo and the rest of the staff to hit the gas pedal immediately when the games end.
The sudden return to the NHL season is going to cause the standings to fluctuate wildly in late-February and early-March. Expect to see major changes in playoff seeding when the season arrives again. You can expect to have a better grasp on the contenders and pretenders in each conference shortly after the Olympics because certain teams are going to hit another gear and others will be stuck in Olympic break mode.
The one aspect that is sure to help the Minnesota Wild during the stoppage is that they will have time to recover from some of the nagging injuries that have plagued them recently. Marco Scandella suffered a sprained MCL on Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning and if there was ever a “good time” for that injury to happen, it’s now. He’ll have nearly 20 days to recover from what is expected to be a 2-3 week injury. It can’t be stressed enough how important the presence 7 healthy and experience defensemen will be prior to the playoffs. Having the ability to rotate and scratch players who are not playing well during that time will be a luxury that other teams may not have.
Mikko Koivu has not ruled out playing in the Olympics, but he is still believed to be finishing his recovery from a broken leg. It’s imperative that he comes back completely healed when the Wild returns to action.
Finally, Niklas Backstrom has dealt with continued soreness in his backup role to Darcy Kuemper and any time that he is afforded the opportunity to get back to 100 percent will be welcomed with open arms.
Olympic hockey is one of the greatest spectacles in sports. Take a game that is already emotional and allow the best players in the world to compete for their countries and you’re certain to see quite the phenomenon. In terms of national importance, think of it as the World Cup for the more frigid countries of the world. And just for the record, my Olympic prediction… Sweden beats Russia in the gold medal game. The host country loses to the team with arguably the most depth.
I’d love to hear your own predictions in the comments section. Enjoy the Olympics everyone!!!