After helping Canada to a gold medal in one of the most-watched hockey games in recent memory, Philadelphia Flyers teammates Mike Richards(notes) and Chris Pronger(notes) must return to the daily grind of the NHL on Tuesday night at Tampa Bay.
There will be pivotal points available for a pair of teams involved in the Eastern Conference playoff chase when the Lightning host Richards, Pronger and a Flyers team that won four straight before the Olympic break.
Richards had an assist and Pronger led all Canadian skaters in ice time during the host country’s 3-2 overtime win over the United States on Sunday in Vancouver, securing Canada’s eighth men’s hockey gold. Lightning forward Ryan Malone(notes) helped Team USA earn silver, but all three players will have to quickly adjust to a game with far less intensity in the building.
“I know it’s going to be tough, especially early on, after such an emotional high to get back playing NHL regular season games,” Philadelphia’s Danny Briere(notes) told his team’s official Web site. “As we get into the playoff (race) and the games get bigger and bigger, I think that’s where their experience will probably (help).”
The Flyers (32-25-3) are currently sixth in the East, in good position for a third straight postseason appearance thanks in part to a four-game winning streak heading into the break.
Philadelphia swept home-and-series with New Jersey and Montreal, with Michael Leighton(notes) allowing two goals in each of the four games. Starting goalie Ray Emery(notes) has been placed on long-term injured reserve due to a hip injury, meaning Leighton will remain in net to anchor the team’s strong defense.
The Flyers have allowed two or fewer goals in eight straight games, going 6-2-0 in that stretch, but coach Peter Laviolette is hoping his team won’t be too comfortable with its position in the standings. Five teams - including the Lightning - are five or fewer points behind Philadelphia.
“We’re in a dogfight down the stretch,” Laviolette said. “A bad week could really turn things around, so we need to be ready and make sure we have all hands on deck.”
The Lightning (26-24-11) are tied for ninth in the East and could get a major boost from a win over Philadelphia, but will have to reverse a troubling recent trend of poor defense.
Tampa Bay has allowed five goals in each of its last three games, losing all of them. The Lightning had yielded a total of 12 goals in their previous nine games, going 7-1-1.
“We don’t feel very good,” center Steven Stamkos(notes) said after a 5-2 loss to the New York Rangers on Feb. 14. “Losing three in a row heading into the break is not acceptable, especially in the race that we’re in. We should use this break to really think about the next 21 games we have. It’s embarrassing the way we’ve played these last three games after going on that little run.”
Stamkos has been playing well individually, notching at least one point in 13 straight games to tie the team record. He has 10 goals and 13 assists in that stretch, and the two weeks off could benefit the budding 20-year-old.
Tampa Bay’s other top forwards, veterans Martin St. Louis(notes) and Vincent Lecavalier(notes), also got some rest during the Olympics. Lecavalier will hope to regroup after he was held without a point in the last five games, and drew a minus-seven rating in the last three.
The Flyers have won four straight against Tampa Bay - all by at least three goals - and their 4-1 home win Jan. 9 dealt Lightning goalie Antero Niittymaki(notes) a loss in his first start against his former team.