Upcoming games pose a potential obstacle for NHL progress

For Canucks fans, the picture of Sami Salo limping off the ice has become a groan-inducingly familiar one and Vancouver's injury riddled first half has seen stars like Roberto Luongo and Daniel Sedin sidelined for weeks. So imagine Sami Salo, or another key Canuck player, writhing in pain on the ice of GM place, but instead of blood soaking the blue of their Canuck jersey, it stains a national team sweater. With the Olympics approaching, this is a realistic nightmare for many Canucks fans.

Vancouver 2010 marks the fourth time NHL players have participated in the games and although several countries have still yet to announce their teams, several Canucks are virtual locks. Luongo, the Sedin Twins, Pavol Demitra, Sami Salo, and Ryan Kesler could all appear on their countries' rosters and for the Vancouver Canucks, the participation of so many key players in the Olympics could pose an obstacle in their NHL campaign.

Firstly, the Canucks hand over their home rink, GM Place, to the Vancouver Olympic Committee on January 20, to allow them time to prepare the venue for the Olympics. While VANOC sets up, the Canucks launch into a fourteen game road trip spanning the Olympic break. The Canucks have not played poorly on the road this year, but a road-trip of this calibre is a significant undertaking. There is potential for this trek to cost the Canucks dearly in the standings. Conversely, there is potential for the team to gel on the road, push through the adversity of the extended road trip, and set themselves up for a strong finish to the season.

Another potential effect of Olympic hockey is Luongo's participation, possibly as Canada's starting goalie. Luongo’s strong play of late has gone a long way towards getting him on the squad, but barring injury, Canada’s current starting goalie will be Martin Brodeur. However, if Luongo gets on a roll for the Canadian Olympic squad, this momentum will surely continue into the second half of the NHL season. If Luongo and the Canadians don’t show up to play every night, or lose a heartbreaker, negative momentum could affect Luongo’s play throughout the rest of the season, and in effect cripple the rest of the team.

For the Canucks who will not be representing their homelands, the Olympic break will benefit them mentally and physically. However, they must be wary of complacency during the break. If the Canucks can come back from the break refreshed, and with a renewed desire to win, the second half should be a dandy.

A true danger, the scariest possibility for Canucks fans, is the threat of injury. Sami Salo, the Fragile Finn, will probably suit up for his homeland, the Sedins for Sweden, Kesler for the USA, and Luongo for Canada. These players represent a huge part of the Canucks’ core; if any of them return from the games injured, an essential piece of the puzzle will be missing, setting the team back greatly. Representing one's country is a wonderful thing to do, especially on a stage as large as the Olympics, however, these players are being paid to play for their NHL clubs. If any one of them becomes injured during the Olympics, their NHL club takes a huge hit losing a key component of their team down the stretch run.

Currently, the Canucks sit in the middle of the pack in the NHL’s Western conference, still very much in the playoff hunt, but with an uphill climb ahead of them. This year’s condensed NHL schedule, accommodating the Olympic break, continues to lead the boys in blue through the schedule at a breakneck pace. However, the Olympics could significantly affect the team's campaign – any of these Olympic concerns could literally make or break their season. Their potential success will not solely be pinned on the extra time they have for recuperation (nor will their potential shortcomings be blamed solely on their extended road trip). However, if the Canucks as a team are able to pull together and stay focused on winning, and our Canadian Olympians play at their very best, it could be a banner year for hockey here in Vancouver, both for our beloved Canucks, and for Canada’s Olympic team.

//Colin May


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