Buffalo Sabres goalie Patrick Lalime makes a save during NHL hockey practice in Buffalo, N.Y., Monday, March 1, 2010. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/David Duprey
VANCOUVER, B.C. - A thrilling Olympic tournament capped with a golden goal.
Hockey was enjoying a sudden burst of popularity Monday, a day after Sidney Crosby lifted Canada to a 3-2 overtime victory over the United States to win the gold medal at the Vancouver Games.
The ending could not have been better for the NHL, with the U.S. and Canada in the final and Crosby's Stanley Cup champion Penguins playing U.S. goalie Ryan Miller's Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday, when most teams are back in action.
Yet the irony is that Crosby's wrister sliding under Miller might be the last Olympic memory the NHL can share.
The league has not yet agreed to stop the season again in four years to enable its players to participate in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Two-time defending MVP Alex Ovechkin has already vowed that he will play in the Games in his host country regardless of what the NHL decides.
Debate continues to rage as to what effects - both positive and negative - taking a two-week break in the heart of the season has on the NHL. It all seems good when the Olympics are held in North America and its conducive time zones for television coverage of the games, and when the gold medal game features a dream matchup.
But for every finish like this one, there is also the possibility that Sweden and Finland could fight for gold on the last day, as was the case at the 2006 Turin Olympics. And next time out, the games will be in a time zone that makes for weak television ratings in North America.
NBC said Monday that Sunday's gold medal game was the most-watched hockey game in 30 years, drawing an average viewership of 27.6 million. Not since the finals of the Americans' 1980 Miracle On Ice run, when the U.S. secured gold against Finland, had so many viewed a hockey game on American television (32.8 million).
Canada's latest golden victory was seen by 10.5 million more viewers than in 2002 when the Canadians topped the U.S. for gold at Salt Lake City - a 61 per cent increase.
Still, even as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman praised the Olympic tournament, there was no discussion of the future.
"The 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver served as the latest affirmation that the quality of our play - and our players - is the finest in the world. We send our Olympians back to their NHL teams with our congratulations, appreciation and thanks for having represented their NHL teams, their league and their fans with such distinction," Bettman said in a statement.
"As every member of the gold and silver medal teams plays for an NHL club, the speed and skill of our outstanding athletes and our game remains on display as the excitement of our season resumes."
The NHL had one game scheduled Monday in its return from the 14-day Olympic break - Detroit at Colorado - with a 12-game slate on Tuesday. Matching the excitement of the Olympic tournament may be an impossible task, but the league is still headed to a key moment in the season. Teams have anywhere from 19 to 22 games left in the regular season to secure playoff spots, followed by the run to the Stanley Cup.
Miller will get a chance for a bit of redemption and revenge against Crosby. The kicker is that Miller will also be facing U.S. teammate Brooks Orpik, who now goes back to being on the same side as Sid the Kid as a Penguins defenceman.
"I've seen him score many goals for us in Pittsburgh," Orpik said. "It's disappointing, but if we were going to lose, I'm glad he's the guy that won."
Settling for silver stung Orpik, but in the world of Olympic hockey, teammates and opponents switch sides in a matter of 24 hours. The same thing happened in reverse two weeks earlier when NHL teams dispersed and players joined countrymen on the world stage.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have been joined at the hip since they came to Chicago and sparked the Blackhawks' return to relevance. The Olympics broke up this dynamic duo, pitting Toews and Canada against Kane and the Americans.
Toews scored the first of Canada's three gold that ended up costing Kane his dream of gold.
"I'll definitely be very respectful of what he did and what his team did at this tournament," Toews said. "I don't see it as a joking matter between the two of us. It was such a hard-fought game that I can imagine the disappointment on their side of it.
"We were this close to coming up on the losing end, too, and it would not have been a good feeling. You've got to give it to him for the way he played. I will leave it at that."
The player movement won't just involve shifting from national teams to NHL clubs. Wednesday is the league's trade deadline, and it is traditionally a busy day for dealing. Big names such as Ilya Kovalchuk, Dion Phaneuf, Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Olli Jokinen were traded in the days leading up to the break, but many more could be changing places in the next day or so.
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock basked in the glow of guiding Canada to gold, but like Miller he couldn't let the celebration last. The defending Western Conference champions returned from the Olympic break just outside a post-season spot. Work needs to be done to extend Hockeytown's run of consecutive playoff appearances to 19 seasons.
Detroit will depend on defenceman Brian Rafalski, a three-time Stanley Cup champion and two-time Olympic silver medallist who tied Zach Parise for the U.S. lead with four goals and eight points in the Olympics. He will get over falling short of the gold, he just doesn't know when.
"I'll tell you as time goes on," he said.