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Eager Jets dismiss notion of Oly hangover

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The Jets are hoping to get right back in the air, such as here, where Blake Wheeler (26) and Devin Setoguchi celebrate the winner over Vancouver Jan. 31.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

The Jets are hoping to get right back in the air, such as here, where Blake Wheeler (26) and Devin Setoguchi celebrate the winner over Vancouver Jan. 31.

It always works like this after any decent bash: the messy clean-up reluctantly begins and, for many, the nursing of some hellacious hangovers becomes a minute-by-minute struggle.

Yes, Sochi threw a heckuva hockey party during the Winter Olympics, even if Canada's domination of the Tre Kronor in the gold-medal finale wasn't what any of the Russian populace had crossed their fingers and prayed for when the tournament opened.

But as National Hockey League players continued to return to North America -- some of them with their chins on their chest in a post-Olympic walk-of-shame -- a quadrennial question is once again being asked:

Is there really such a thing as an Olympic hangover, as many have insisted since the NHL started participating in 1998?

And if there is, what impact might the lingering after-effects have on the sprint to the playoffs and beyond?

We start with how this might impact the club in our own backyard, the Winnipeg Jets, who had four players represented in Russia -- Czechs Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Frolik, Blake Wheeler of the United States and bronze medallist Olli Jokinen of Finland.

'I don't remember anything changing when the guys came back to Chicago in 2010 or when I was in Carolina in 2006'

-- Jets captain Andrew Ladd, left, looking forward to celebrating more goals with Finnish bronze medallist and teammate Olli Jokinen

Both Pavelec and Frolik returned to Winnipeg late last week and were on the ice on Saturday. Wheeler and Jokinen -- who played against each other in the bronze medal game -- are anticipated to be back with the Jets on Tuesday.

Unless there is a trade before next week's deadline that quartet, which features one player from each of the top three lines and Pavelec, figures to play a critical role in the Jets' 22-game push to a playoff spot.

The unknown at this point: did the Olympics steal any precious late-season fuel from their tanks?

"I don't remember anything changing when the guys came back to Chicago in 2010 or when I was in Carolina in 2006," said Jets' captain Andrew Ladd, a former Blackhawk and Hurricane, when quizzed whether an Oly-hangover affected those squads.

"Those guys that went over there (to the Olympics) were playing hockey or practising every day so they're in game shape. A lot of them are riding high from playing in the Olympics and those up-tempo games. I think that translates well for the guys coming back.

"And for our guys coming back they're coming back to the challenge of getting this team into the playoffs. That's something that will keep them going."

Just FYI, Chicago won the 2010 Stanley Cup, but it's worth noting that club -- featuring six Olympians -- went 6-7-2 right after the Vancouver Games before rolling to a 5-0-1 record in April and losing just six games in the playoffs.

"It went pretty good that year," Swedish Olympian Niklas Hjalmarsson told the Chicago Sun-Times last month. "Hopefully, we could do something like that again."

And in 2006, when Ladd was a member of the Hurricanes, Carolina sent three players to Turin and -- like the Hawks -- was hardly affected at all as they won the Stanley Cup that June.

But it's here where the Olympic-hangover theory might need some further examining. That's because for as much as the Hawks and Canes -- and the Olympian-heavy Detroit Red Wings of 1998 and 2002, also champions -- are evidence the mid-season quest for medals can be healthy, there are others who believe participation might have hurt their team's Stanley Cup runs.

The 2006 Wings, for example, sent 10 players to Turin -- four of them on the Swedish gold-medal squad -- and then, looking completely spent by the spring, flamed out in a first-round playoff loss to the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers.

That same winter the New York Rangers had nine players wearing their countries' colours at the Olympics and entered on a 10-1-1 roll but, once the Turin Games were completed, returned to go 0-4-2 before finishing the regular season on a five-game winless streak and were then swept in the first round by New Jersey.

This year's Rangers must also feel cursed, as they lost leading scorer Mats Zuccarello to injury for approximately a month, part of an Olympic hurt list that includes John Tavares of the Islanders, Aleksander Barkov of Florida, Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg and Fedor Tyutin of Columbus. Tavares is the worst of that bunch as he is now gone for the season with a mangled knee.

All of which brings us back to the Jets of 2013-14 and the possibility of an Oly hangover...

Frolik and Pavelec, as previously noted, will have been back on the ground here in Winnipeg for almost a week by the time the Jets meet the Phoenix Coyotes on Thursday. Neither would speak negatively about the soap opera that was the Czech national team, but may find solace with the news of the resignation of head coach Alois Hadamczik, who stepped aside Monday.

Wheeler appeared in six games for the Americans in Sochi, but was on the ice for a grand total of 29 minutes and 26 seconds. And Jokinen, while centering the Finnish top line, seemed to rediscover his scoring touch with four points (2G, 2A) in six games.

Will they -- check that, CAN they -- still be key cogs in the gruelling grind that will be a race to possibly the Jets' first playoff spot in their rebirth?

We're all about to find out, beginning Thursday against the Coyotes.

"What I remember about 2010," said Dustin Byfuglien, a member of the champion Blackhawks four years ago, "is the key was the guys that didn't go to the Olympics had to stay focused. And the guys that went, they had to keep focused while also getting a rest when they got back. They needed their days off and to get their bodies healed up. We just had to be smart about that.

"I think we'll be just fine."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 25, 2014 D1

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Updated on Tuesday, February 25, 2014 at 8:23 AM CST: Replaces photo, changes headline, formats sidebar

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