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Mirtle: Rested and ready, Leafs need to take advantage of Olympic break

Phil Kessel of the U.S. watches his teammates take shots during a team practice at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics February 20, 2014.


They had fewer players overseas than almost every other NHL team (three).

They ended up tied with four other clubs for the fewest medals won (none).

And that may well end up being a very good thing for the Toronto Maple Leafs, for a couple of reasons.

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First, and most importantly, the Leafs three Olympians are all healthy. Nikolai Kulemin is already skating with the team and Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk are both expected at practice on Wednesday once they recover from their trip home from Russia.

Second, and more subtly, the fact Toronto had so few Olympians means the majority of the team will get the luxury of an 18-day break without games. That has allowed those on injured reserve like Dave Bolland and Trevor Smith to heal and those playing big minutes to take an in-season vacation to prepare for a brutal 22 games in 45 days finish.

That wasn't the case for everyone.

Among the eight teams closest to the Leafs in the Eastern Conference standings, only the Ottawa Senators had fewer than four Olympians. The average in that group is just shy of six, and it includes teams that lost their leading scorers to injuries suffered in Sochi such as the New York Rangers (Mats Zuccarello) and Detroit Red Wings (Henrik Zetterberg).

"The Olympic break, for the guys that got it, it's definitely a plus with the amount of hockey that we've played," Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf explained. "You look at how may games we're playing over the next month and a little bit, there's a lot of hockey. That rest is going to help."

The Leafs first game out of the break isn't until Thursday in Long Island, where they'll face another team missing a star to an Olympic injury. The Islanders lost John Tavares for the season after the centre suffered a season-ending knee injury while playing for Team Canada.

From there, things get difficult, including a tough five-game road trip in mid-March that begins in Anaheim on a Monday and ends across the country in Washington and Detroit a week later.

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There are few gimme games remaining, too, with only two of Toronto's final 21 games against teams that are essentially out of the running for the postseason.

Despite winning 11 of their last 14 games, the Leafs haven't guaranteed anything in the standings, either. It will likely still take winning another 10 or eleven games to secure a playoff spot, and players realize those wins won't come easy.

"It's still tight," defenceman Carl Gunnarsson said. "Every game's going to be a battle. All the teams in that spot we're in, they're going to fight for this one, and 22 games is not a whole lot of points to fight for."

One wild card in how Toronto finishes is just how well Kessel and van Riemsdyk rebound from the disappointment (and fatigue) from the Games, where the Americans were excellent through the preliminary games but beaten soundly by Canada and Finland in the medal round.

Both had strong tournaments: Kessel's eight points tied him for the overall scoring lead, and van Riemsdyk wasn't far behind with seven, continuing a red hot stretch for the pair.

Heading to the Games, Kessel had been the NHL's leading point-getter in the previous 20-odd games, scoring at a 55-goal and 125-point pace since Christmas that will be all but impossible to keep up. (A nearly 20 per cent shooting percentage in that span makes that particularly unlikely.)

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While a small Olympic hangover is expected for both players, a big one would be hugely problematic, especially given the Leafs have so far only been hot when their big guns have been scoring.

Despite the tough schedule, there's a window here for them to take advantage of all the time off and the fact their competition will be more beat up than they are, but they'll need Kessel and van Riemsdyk playing well.

But maybe, just maybe, they'll be motivated to do so after the sour taste left by their finish in Sochi.

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Number of Olympians on Eastern Conference teams

Among the teams in playoff position in the East, the Leafs could be well positioned given they had so few players in Sochi. Five East teams also suffered key injuries at the Games – the Penguins, Rangers, Red Wings, Islanders and Panthers – while Toronto is almost fully healthy as players have recovered during the break. Teams are in order of their current rank by points.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More


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