The last time these teams met, Pittsburgh and Chicago were two of the top teams in the NHL.
That hasn't changed, but neither looks like the Cup-contending version of itself that entered the Olympic break on a roll and came out of it with a limp.
Pittsburgh has surrendered the top spot in the East to the Boston Bruins, and won't be taking it back this season. Chicago, again near the top of the West standings, has since fallen off the pace, as St. Louis now controls the Central Division.
Both the Penguins and Blackhawks have gone 4-5-1 in their last ten games, and they'll be looking to right their playoff path with a win Sunday in Pittsburgh.
One theory as to the recent struggles? Olympian-heavy rosters tend to lag following the international tournament, held earlier this year in Sochi. The Penguins (7 players, 2 coaches and a general manager) and Blackhawks (an NHL-leading 10 Olympians) were among the most highly-represented teams at the tournament, and each has faltered since coming back to the states.
From The New York Times,
Still, a little-noticed 2012 study may provide such evidence: It found that for every player an N.H.L. club sent to the Olympics, the club's goal differential dropped by 0.088 of a goal per game compared with its performance before the Games. That is to say, clubs that sent many players to the Olympics in 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010 suffered a bigger performance drop-off, on the whole, than clubs that sent few players.
The study, conducted by the University of Massachusetts professor Neil Longley and published in The International Journal of Sport Finance, is believed to be the only one to quantify the Olympic fatigue effect on N.H.L. clubs during the run to the playoffs.
"It could be physical fatigue; it could be emotional fatigue - we can't really answer that question," Longley said in a telephone interview. "There could be an energizing effect to being at the Olympics. But the numbers show that the more Olympians an N.H.L. team supplies, the greater its post-Olympic drop-off relative to its pre-Olympic performance."
"The Olympics do seem to change competitive outcomes in the N.H.L.," Longley wrote in the study. "The best-performing N.H.L. teams - because they send the most players to the Olympics - are somewhat disadvantaged relative to weaker N.H.L. teams."
Makes sense. The Penguins lost Paul Martin to a hand injury sustained during the Games, and their team defense has been hanging by a thread without their best all-around defender. Chicago sent nearly half its roster to Russia, and they've fallen well behind St. Louis in the division.
Granted, the numbers for the 2014 Games can't all be put together until the regular season is over, and not every club with a roster heavy on Olympians is struggling.
And it's not as though the tournament is the only thing contributing to the downward trends. Pittsburgh has lost Evgeni Malkin and Marcel Goc since the break (and had previously lost Kris Letang, Beau Bennett and others) while Chicago lost Patrick Kane to a hand injury some time after the tournament.
Sunday's game isn't likely to have much bearing on where these teams enter the postseason. Chicago is battling with Colorado for the 2-3 seeds in the Central with little pressure from below, while Pittsburgh trails Boston and leads Philadelphia by double-digit margins, leaving them with the East's second seed all but locked up.
Still, for all the NHL gets out of the Olympics (apparently, not much), it would be nice to see the league's best teams playing their best hockey as the postseason draws near.
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