The Olympic flame has been doused in Sochi, so we now return you to your regularly scheduled hockey season.
After 16 days with no NHL games, the league gets back in action tonight in First Niagara Center as the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes meet in the first contest following the conclusion of the Olympic tournament in Russia.
The makeup of the Sabres-Canes Jan. 7 postponement is the only NHL game tonight. The rest of the league drops the puck Wednesday with four games — including the Sabres’ home contest against Boston — and then 12 more on Thursday.
The Sabres also host San Jose here Friday, providing a backbreaking start to the post-Olympic schedule with three home games in four nights.
“Add one more game to an already very condensed schedule,” defensman Tyler Myers said after practice Monday. “It’s not going to add too much more stress. It’s a makeup game that adds a back-to-back to start but I think all the guys are feeling pretty good going in. I’m glad we’re doing it right off the bat.”
“It’s going to be hard hockey the rest of the way,” said captain Steve Ott. “The league takes a big step right about now and we have to be ready right away for this.”
Reporters swarmed Ott and Matt Moulson in the Buffalo dressing room Monday. Both are good candidates to be dealt prior to the March 5 trade deadline. So is goaltender Ryan Miller, who landed in Buffalo around noon Monday on his return from Sochi.
Miller flew back with Jhonas Enroth and Henrik Tallinder, with none of them attending practice. Miller is slated to get the start tonight.
General Manager Tim Murray was in the stands watching practice and figures to be busy remaking the roster heading into the deadline. Murray is expected to discuss the subject with reporters today.
“People have been saying it’s going to happen for a long time, ever since I got here,” Moulson said, referring to a trade. “You just control what you can control. Obviously I don’t have a clue if I’m going to be traded or where I’m going to go so I don’t think I can really think about that.
Moulson said he’s had a couple of conversations with Pat LaFontaine, the team’s president of hockey operations, but is leaving any contract talk to his agent.
“I’ve defnitely enjoyed my time here. I think this team is going to be good,” he said. “They have the right guys in place that are going to make this team good and the owners that are willing to have a successful team. I’ve enjoyed my time here. My family has enjoyed our time here and let’s see what happens.
“The Stanley Cup winner from last year or the year before, they’re all different teams,” Ott said. “It’s so hard nowadays to keep any group of guys together. In our case, when you’re in 30th place, ‘the upstairs’ definitely wants to make an impact and change the group in here to have success.”
Interim coach Ted Nolan said he assumes there will be changes made prior to the March 5 trade deadline and it’s likely there will be big ones.
“Right now the only thing I’m concentrating on is coaching,” Nolan said. “Timmy is very good at what he does. Pat LaFontaine, Craig Patrick and all the people we have, I’ll let them do that stuff and I’ll worry about coaching.”
The Sabres enter tonight’s game last in the NHL’s overall standing, with a 15-34-8 record good for just 38 points. They are nine points behind Edmonton (20-33-7) in the battle for the league’s worst record and the best lottery position for the No. 1 pick, although Buffalo has three games in hand.
The Sabres have just three regulation wins in their last 20 games, going 6-9-5 in that stretch. Buffalo dropped its final four games prior to the Olympic break and will be trying to avoid losing five straight in regulation for the second time this year.
The Sabres have scored an NHL-low 104 goals in 57 games (although the standings credit them for 110, counting six shootout winners). With a meager pace of just 1.82 goals per game, the Sabres are on pace to finish with 150 and almost certain to shatter their franchise low for a full season of 190, set in 2002-03.
In fact, they are on pace for the worst offensive season in the NHL’s expansion era dating to 1967. That mark is 151, set by the 1997-98 Tampa Bay Lightning.
Carolina enters the game 26-22-9 for 61 points and is three behind Detroit for the final wild-card slot in the East. The Canes have a game in hand on the Red Wings that they will make up tonight.