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Olympians are back, so is the NHL

by Staff
In the first game after the Olympics, the Red Wings reminded their Western Conference rivals that they will be tough to dethrone on the road to the 2010 Stanley Cup with a 3-2 win at Colorado. The team is returning to health - Johan Franzen scored and defenseman Andreas Lilja returned after a year-long absence. The Red Wings, bidding for their 19th consecutive playoff appearance, moved into eighth place in the conference standings with the win.

Just 24 hours after playing in the gold medal game, Detroit's Brian Rafalski and Colorado's Paul Stastny both logged big minutes last night - Rafalski 22:41 and Stastny 22:22.

There are 12 games Tuesday night, tied for the busiest day remaining in the regular season. The only future date with as many games is Saturday, March 27. Here is a look at what's on tap.

Sabres at Penguins -- There will be a distinct Olympic buzz at Mellon Arena thanks to the presence of Canadian Olympic hero Sidney Crosby, Team USA goaltender and Olympic MVP Ryan Miller (although Miller will not play) and Team USA defenseman Brooks Orpik. Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff also was an assistant on the Team Canada bench.

Sabres backup Patrick Lalime gets the start in goal and will hope to match his effort of Dec. 29 when he blanked the Pens in relief of Miller in a 4-3 comeback victory at Buffalo. Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, a disappointment at the Olympics in Vancouver, carries a 13-game NHL point streak into the game. It's a big one in the standings, too -- the fourth-seeded Pens lead the fifth-seeded Sabres by just one point.

Blackhawks at Islanders -- All eyes will be on Blackhawks star forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, teammates again after waging two classic battles in the Olympics. Also of note will be the reunion of Blackhawks defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who were split up on Team Canada. The Blackhawks begin their march to the playoffs and what they hope will be their first Stanley Cup since 1961.

The Islanders, meanwhile, hope the break will reverse a slump that saw them post a 2-8-0 record in the 10 games leading into the Olympics. The Isles start the stretch run seeded 13th in the East, but trail eighth-seeded Montreal by just six points. Will the two-week vacation refresh rookie center John Tavares? He has just two goals in his past 31 games.

Hurricanes at Maple Leafs -- One of two Canadian teams at home tonight (the other is Ottawa hosting the NY Rangers) but this is the only one in which fans will be able to salute a member of gold medal-winning Team Canada (Carolina's Eric Staal). Team USA personnel in the building will include Toronto GM Brian Burke, coach Ron Wilson, wing Phil Kessel plus Carolina defenseman Tim Gleason.

Canadiens at Bruins -- This is one of four games on the schedule between clubs separated by four points or less. Boston holds the seventh seed, one point ahead of eighth-seed Montreal. While the Bruins have won their last four games before the break, they haven't won at home since they hosted the Winter Classic on New Year's Day.

Canadiens' goaltender Jaroslav Halak was outstanding in the Olympics for Slovakia but he will get the night off. Carey Price, who is 8-2-2 lifetime against the Bruins, gets the start. The Bruins welcome back two Olympic medalists: centre Patrice Bergeron won gold with Team Canada and goaltender Tim Thomas earned silver with the USA.

Panthers at Thrashers -- Like the Islanders, the Panthers open the home stretch just six points out of the playoffs, but to qualify for their first postseason since 2000 they will need to overcome a historic scoring drought that plagued them leading into the break: they have scored 2 goals or fewer in each of the past 12 games. The team also will have to do without defenseman Jordan Leopold, traded to Pittsburgh Monday. Leopold ranked second on the club in ice time (22:25). The Thrashers, meanwhile, kick off their "Wake up Atlanta! promotion, as they have 12 home games in March.

Canucks at Blue Jackets -- It's the first game out of the break for several Olympians, including Canucks' goalie Roberto Luongo and Blue Jackets' center Rick Nash. They were teammates on Team Canada, but now Nash will be firing shots on Luongo as the players get back to business after winning a gold medal.

This also marks the ninth game of the Canucks' NHL-record 14-game road trip. The biggest cheer from the Columbus crowd possibly could go to a visiting player, Canucks forward Ryan Kesler. The Team USA hero attended Ohio State.

Rangers at Senators -- The Senators hope that the Olympic break won't stop the momentum they built over the preceding month, when they won 14 of 16 and vaulted into the Northeast Division lead. The Sens have won seven straight at Scotiabank Place. The Rangers were on a mini-roll entering the break, winning three of their last four. The club claimed Alex Auld on waivers from Dallas Saturday as insurance for starter Henrik Lundqvist in goal.

Flyers at Lightning -- The Flyers have owned the Lightning in the first three games of the season series, winning all three by a combined 15-5. The game features a matchup of star forwards who narrowly missed making Canada's Olympic roster, Flyers center Jeff Carter and Lightning center Steven Stamkos. Carter took a four-game goal-scoring streak into the Olympic break and has a team-high 27. Stamkos has a share of the longest active point streak in the League (13 games, 10-13--23) and is tied for fourth in the NHL goal-scoring race with 35.

The Lightning play their first game after the break amid the controversy surrounding the exit of assistant coach Wes Walz during the Olympics. The Lightning are only four points behind the Flyers and one point out of a playoff spot.

Three players who skated in Sunday's gold-medal game -- Philadelphia's Mike Richards and Chris Pronger and Tampa Bay's Ryan Malone -- have traveled 3,300 miles from Vancouver for this contest, the longest trek among Canada-US players.

Oilers at Predators -- The big news for the Predators is the excitement surrounding the breakout Olympic performances by young stars Shea Weber (Canada) and Ryan Suter (U.S.). Weber tallied 6 points for Team Canada and earned a spot on the tournament All-Star team, while Suter tied the tournament lead in plus-minus (plus-9) and led Team USA in ice time.

Defenseman Denis Grebeshkov, who went to Vancouver to represent Russia as a member of the Oilers, returns from the break as Predator and will face his former teammates right away.

Kings at Stars -- The Kings enter the stretch drive with the second-best record after 61 games in franchise history and in prime contention to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2001-02. A host of players in this game enjoyed breakout Olympic tournaments, including young Kings defensemen Drew Doughty (Canada) and Jack Johnson (US). The Stars boast Sweden forward Loui Eriksson and captain Brenden Morrow, who excelled in his energy-line role for Canada. With his next victory, Jonathan Quick of the Kings will break the single-season franchise record of 35 set by Mario Lessard in 1980-81. The Stars' Marty Turco, meanwhile, will reach an NHL Milestone of 500 goaltender games with his next appearance.

Blues at Coyotes
-- The Coyotes are on pace to record their finest season since joining the NHL as the Winnipeg Jets in 1979-80; they have 19 games remaining and are eyeing their first Stanley Cup playoff berth in eight years. Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov (32 wins) is one shy of tying the single-season franchise record held by three players, including current Phoenix goalie coach Sean Burke (2001-02). Blues goaltender Chris Mason won each his last three starts before the Olympic break, allowing just six goals on 106 shots.

Only four points out of a playoff spot, the Blues will be heartened by the outstanding performance of young Team USA stars Erik Johnson and David Backes in Olympic competition.

Devils at Sharks -- Eight players on these teams took part in the riveting Canada-United States gold-medal game Sunday. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley and Dan Boyle of the Sharks all tasted gold for the Canadians, as did Martin Brodeur of the Devils. Joe Pavelski of the Sharks and Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner of the Devils participated for the USA.

Neither team's No. 1 goaltender enjoyed an Olympics to remember: Brodeur ended up getting more of a rest in Vancouver than originally expected, starting just two games before Roberto Luongo was handed the reins. San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov, meanwhile, was lit up in the Russians' 7-3 loss to Team Canada in the quarterfinals.

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