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NHL heads back to the ice after Olympic break, Crosby thinks the transition might help him

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The Sochi Olympics are over and the NHL is back after freezing its schedule so that the world's best hockey players could compete for gold — perhaps for the last time.

Sidney Crosby won another Olympic championship with Canada. Now, Sid the Kid wants to help the Pittsburgh Penguins hoist the Stanley Cup again.

Crosby and the Penguins host Montreal on Thursday, the third day of league games after the Olympic break, just four days after helping the Canadians beat Sweden in the gold-medal game in Russia.

"In some ways, it will help, playing at this speed in one-game elimination with desperation," Crosby said Sunday after the final competition of the Sochi Games. "I haven't really had this transition midseason with Olympic ice, going back to regular size, but I don't think it's a bad thing."

In the East, Boston holds a seven-point lead over Tampa Bay in the Atlantic Division coming out of the Olympic break. Pittsburgh holds a 16-point lead over the Rangers in the Metropolitan.

It's much tighter in the West, where St. Louis and defending champion Chicago are tied atop the Central Division, just five points in front of Colorado. The Ducks have the conference's top mark and a seven-point lead on San Jose.

The NHL is going to have its fifth and sixth outdoor games of the season on Saturday, when the Chicago Blackhawks play Pittsburgh at Soldier field, and the next day in a Vancouver-Ottawa matchup at BC Place.

Despite seemingly having success with the expansion of the concept beyond an annual Winter Classic, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman isn't ready to say there will be more than one game exposed to the elements next season.

"We haven't made any decisions about how many games next year (will be outdoors), but the games this year so far have been nothing short of spectacular," Bettman said in an interview with The Associated Press during the Olympics. "The Winter Classic had over 100,000 people in Michigan, played in the snow, and at two games in Yankee Stadium and the game in Los Angeles, fans couldn't have been more engaged.

"When you think about the impact of these regular season games have had, it shows you how excited our fans get about the outdoor games."

The Detroit Red Wings lost to Toronto in a shootout at the Big House on New Year's Day, giving the Maple Leafs an extra point that could prove to be pivotal when the regular season ends April 13. The storied franchises are likely competing for one of the two wild-card bids in the Eastern Conference.

If the playoffs began today, the Red Wings would extend their post-season streak to 23. Detroit made it last year by only one point and the race might be as tight again with Columbus, Ottawa, Washington, Carolina and New Jersey within a win or two of moving into a wild-card spot.

"When we play teams like Montreal and Toronto, those are really like four-point games," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said.

In the Western Conference, which appears to be filled with better teams, it looks like Dallas, Phoenix, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Nashville may be vying for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. The Buffalo Sabres, meanwhile, have an NHL-low 38 points — nine fewer than the last place team, Edmonton, in the Western Conference.

That gives Buffalo plenty of incentive to shop goaltender Ryan Miller and his expiring contract. Miller was primarily used as a backup for the United States in the Olympics.

The Sabres are running out of time to get something in return for the face of their franchise. The NHL's trade deadline is March 5.

Some teams that were hit by injuries during the Olympics may make moves to replace the players they lost. Others, such as Buffalo, might decide to trade talented or expensive players if it appears they have no shot to be a part of the post-season.

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Follow Larry Lage on Twitter: http://twitter.com/larrylage

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