How Will the Olympic Break Affect the Detroit Red Wings' Playoff Push?

Matt HutterAnalyst IFebruary 9, 2014

Members of the Vancouver Canucks and the Detroit Red Wings who are playing in the Olympics pose at center ice before the first period of an NHL hockey game in Detroit, Monday, Feb. 3, 2014. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

As of now, the Detroit Red Wings’ 2013-14 season is in a state of suspended animation.

For the Star Wars fans among us, we can think of the Red Wings a bit like Han Solo frozen in carbonite—the question of whether or not they’ll survive the freezing process is paramount on everyone’s mind (well, unless you’re Darth Vader; I don’t think he cared one way or the other).

With the NHL pushing the pause button on the season for the next two weeks, the Red Wings have no choice but to hope they can return to the ice with the requisite focus and tenacity they’ll need to extend their playoff run to 23 straight years.

The Red Wings currently possess the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and honestly, given the way this season has gone for Detroit, simply holding steady at that position might be the most realistic thing to hope for.

However, given their record leading up to the Olympic break (5-3-2 in their last 10 games), aiming for a higher finish, maybe even a top-three spot, wouldn’t be all that crazy a strategy.

Buoyed by a breakout stretch by forward Gustav Nyquist (9G, 4A in his past 10 games) and surprisingly consistent play from youngsters Riley Sheahan, Luke Glendening, Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco, the Red Wings finally seemed to have found a groove of late.

Now, Nyquist, Jurco and Tatar are headed to Sochi, and Sheahan and Glendening will eventually rejoin the Grand Rapids Griffins to play during the break before they (hopefully) return to Detroit when play resumes on February 26.

While Nyquist, Jurco and Tatar will likely be energized by representing their countries—Sweden and Slovakia, respectively—how much of that energy will travel back with them from Sochi is an open question.

Among Detroit’s more senior Olympians such as Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Alfredsson and Niklas Kronwall, the question of the Olympics’ impact on their health and energy reserves has loomed large over the past several weeks.

All three have been instrumental in Detroit’s improved play of late, but should they succumb to a nagging injury or simply return to Detroit flat due to fatigue, their contributions to the Red Wings could be decidedly diminished just when the team will need them at their best.

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

And let’s not forget that both of Detroit’s goalies will also be suiting up for their respective national teams.

Team USA goalie Jimmy Howard figures to be a third option behind veteran Ryan Miller and superstar Jonathan Quick—this might be a good thing, or a terrible thing.

Howard is in the midst of what will undoubtedly turn out to be a forgettable year in the net as his monumental struggles early on in the season cost his team valuable points and sufficiently snuffed his heretofore habitual 30-plus win level of performance.

Howard has looked much better in 2014, but halting play to ride pine in Sochi for two weeks might not be the best thing for a No. 1 goalie looking to recover his game.

His backup, Team Sweden’s Jonas Gustavsson, has spelled Howard ably the entire season, but a nagging groin injury has limited his availability of late.

As the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist is Sweden’s undisputed starter, Gustavsson and his groin won’t likely be put under much pressure to perform. Should Howard return and stumble, Gustavsson might be ready to step in and, once again, allow his partner the time he needs to recover his game.

Were the Red Wings far out of a playoff spot, or if they had a firm grasp on a top-three Atlantic Division position, the question of the Olympic break affecting their playoff chances would likely not be a question at all.

However, Detroit’s playoff future is currently hanging in the balance, and suspending their attempts to secure it could have deleterious effects they’d otherwise avoid were that future more certain.

Just like the aforementioned Captain Solo, the Red Wings will find themselves suddenly back among the living in a couple of weeks. Whether they too will be suffering from hibernation sickness is anyone’s guess.