By JEFF BARTL, AP
Wed Feb 26, 5:44 PM UTC
While some have supported the NHL's extended hiatus to allow players to participate in the Olympics, others have found it to be an unnecessary disruption before the stretch run of the regular season.
The San Jose Sharks benefited from their 18-day layoff as some key players got healthy, but the Philadelphia Flyers had to put their four-game winning streak on hold to account for the Sochi Games.
Both previously surging clubs look to pick up where they left off as San Jose visits Philadelphia on Thursday night.
The Sharks (37-16-6) won three of four before the break after beating Columbus 3-2 on Feb. 8, then the majority of the team took some time off as forwards Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski, defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic and starting goalie Antti Niemi headed to the Olympics.
That break, though, allowed Logan Couture (hand), Raffi Torres (torn ACL recovery), Tyler Kennedy (lower body) and Matt Nieto (foot) to nurse their injuries, and each have been practicing in preparation for the season's final 23 games.
"We could be putting a group of players on the ice together for the first time this season," coach Todd McLellan said. "That can be a real good thing. It will also have to be a patient thing for our group. They are going to experience that level that they haven't been at yet.
"We have about six weeks to put it all together."
San Jose's only blemish this month was a 5-2 loss to the Flyers on Feb. 3. Nieto scored twice for the Sharks, while Claude Giroux had a goal and two assists for Philadelphia (30-23-6), which has a three-point lead for the Atlantic Division's third postseason spot.
Flyers chairman Ed Snider and general manager Paul Holmgren each expressed how they viewed the Olympics as a detriment to the season with playoff races heating up before players headed to Sochi.
After putting its winning streak to the side, Philadelphia plays three games in four days after the long break. Forwards Michael Raffl and Jakub Voracek, and defensemen Kimmo Timonen, Andrej Meszaros and Mark Streit all were on Olympic rosters.
"Down the stretch we're playing a lot of good hockey teams, and there's going to be a lot of battles each night," forward Brayden Schenn said. "We have three games in four nights, and those are obviously six huge points we've got to have."
Giroux, passed over for the Canadian team that won gold in Sochi, had five goals and six assists in the final seven before the layoff.
"When you haven't played the game for two weeks, mentally you need to make sure you stay focused and be ready on the first shift," Giroux said.
This month's win over San Jose ended a dismal stretch in the series that saw Philadelphia go 0-8-3 with two ties in the previous 13 meetings, losing the last nine. They've lost five straight at home to the Sharks since the last victory Dec. 21, 2000.
San Jose should be thrilled to have Couture back in the lineup after he missed 16 games. The Sharks averaged 1.94 goals during his absence compared to 3.14 in the first 43 games, and the win over Columbus marked the first time they scored more than two goals in seven contests.
Pavelski, among the league leaders with 29 goals, scored 11 of the Sharks' 31 with Couture out.
"It was nice to see guys step up," said Couture, fourth on the team with 35 points. "When Pav was going real well there, it was unbelievable to watch. A lot of guys stepped up and helped the team win games when we weren't necessarily playing our best."
Niemi is 7-3-0 with a 2.12 goals-against average in his last 10 starts despite being pulled after allowing four goals against Philadelphia, which won behind 20 saves from Steve Mason.
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