The NHL standings are now frozen in time for the next 2 ½ weeks. The Flyers, having climbed to 7th in the East–but just five points out of 3rd–following Saturday’s 2-1 win over a Calgary Flames team that outplayed them most of the day, will take a four-game winning streak into the Olympic break.
They say that will surely give them a boost when they return Feb. 27 to host San Jose, continuing a stretch where they’ll play 13 of 17 games on home ice through the end of March. While they’re naturally concerned about losing their edge during the hiatus, they welcome the opportunity to get some needed rest, many of them taking off for the Caribbean or other warmer climes.
And then there’s Mark Streit, Andrej Meszaros, Jake Voracek, Kimmo Timonen and Michael Raffl, who should just about be arriving in Sochi any minute. None of them are favored to bring home a medal, but funny things can happen when you’re playing for your country under the Olympic rings.
“I think we have a good mix between the older and younger guys,’’ said the 36- year-old Streit, who’ll be playing in his third Olympics for Switzerland. “It’s a skating team.We have a lot of speed. It’s one of our biggest assets. And obviously our goaltending (Anaheim’s Jonas Hiller) is gonna be strong.’’
Unlike the top teams the Swiss won’t be comprised strictly of NHL players, which may give them an advantage on the larger Olympic ice. Plus, many forget they gave Team USA a battle in 2010, losing 2-0 in the quarterfinals, after knocking off both Canada and Czech Republic in Turin in 2006.
“I think Swiss hockey’s come a long way,’’ said Streit, who’ll face Latvia and Sweden, before taking on Flyer teammate Voracek and the Czech Republic next Saturday. “We can challenge those teams.I don’t think they’re gonna underestimate us. We’re in a tough group. We’re going to have to play well defensively.But you never know.’’
Slovakia’s Meszaros would be the first to agree, after his country beat both Russia and Sweden on its way to the semifinals in Vancouver. The dream ended there when they fell to eventual champion Canada, then blew a 3-1 lead vs. Timonen and Finland in the bronze medal game.
He knows it will be tough getting back to that level, due to some key injuries on the defense.
“We have a different group this year,’’ said Meszaros, who had an assist and got some needed work Saturday, after being a healthy scratch Thursday, “a bunch of younger guys.We have to be a tight group. Play responsibly. It’s going to be tough but you never know in these tournaments what’s going to happen.’’
If not Switzerland or Slovakia (who opens with Team USA Wednesday and faces the Russians three days later) perhaps Timonen’s Finns or Voracek’s Czechs could surprise. But regardless if it’s Canada, Sweden, the U.S or host Russia bringing home the gold, the fun part will come when yesterday’s teammates suddenly find themselves tomorrow opponents.
Just as it happened in the otherwise forgettable Pro Bowl, in Sochi it will be a common occurrence. Look for Timonen to be checking Raffl when Finland takes on Austria. Then there’s the Streit-Voracek matchup, with the possibility of bumping into someone else familiar should they make it into the medal round.
All the while the rest of the world will be watching.
“I think guys are obviously real interested,’’ said Brayden Schenn, who got the Flyers on the board with his 15th goal, before Scott Hartnell made it 2-0, then Ray Emery—making his first start in goal at home since November 21—made it stand up with 32 saves. “We’ll be rooting on our teammates and rooting on our country.So I think guys will pay close attention.”
And then, after 2 ½ weeks the standings—where only 10 points separates No. 3 Tampa Bay (71) from the No. 13 Devils–will finally be unfrozen and everyone can again play.