If the New York Rangers want to be dominant in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they are going to need an invigorated Rick Nash firing on all cylinders. The 6'4" power winger had an amazing month of January in which he found the back of the net 11 times, but he coasted into the Olympic break on a five-game pointless streak.
This is not good news, but luckily, Nash will have a chance to improve his game during his time over in Sochi. When he was selected by Hockey Canada, it was assumed that Nash would have a minor role. That doesn't appear to be the case, at least based of the reported lines from Team Canada's first practice.
According to a TSN staff writer, the London, Ontario native was situated on a line pivoted by Jonathan Toews and flanked by Patrick Sharp. This duo features a lot of talent and potential, but will the loaded line give Nash the spark he needs?
Playing in the Olympics is something that should automatically get Nash going because he cherishes moments like this. Throughout his career, Nash had made the most of the high-pressure international events, as he only participated in four playoff games in his eight years with the Columbus Blue Jackets before being dealt to the Rangers.
Whether it 's been the World Championships or the Olympics, Nash has been in control and at the top of his game.
At the 2010 Olympics, Nash tallied five points in seven games as one of the team’s top scorers. He has also had success at the World Championships, including silver finishes in 2005 and 2008 and a gold finish in 2007.
In total, Nash has 53 points in 54 career games during international competition, 26 of which were goals.
If you asked any casual fan about when the best time for hockey is, most would say the playoffs. Players would probably agree too, because there is nothing like playoff hockey. Olympic hockey is similar to the playoffs in intensity, especially when it is time for the medal round.
Players get a kick out of sporting their home colors and national emblems, and it is an amazing feeling to hear your nation's anthem after a victory.
All of these factors will play a role in getting Nash in the right mindset, but playing with two elite Stanley Cup champion forwards like Toews and Sharp certainly will make No. 61 work harder to elevate his game.
Prior to the break, Nash was on ESPN Radio in New York, and he talked about how he started playing to the inside more, and that's something he needs to keep up (h/t SNY Rangers Blog).
For a player of Nash's stature—6'4" and 219 pounds— this is a problem. It is understandable that he is cautious about suffering another concussion, but Nash has enough size to naturally protect him and the puck.
No one is asking Nash to become a throw-caution-to-the-wind player like Claude Lemieux, but he should use his speed, strong legs and hands to protect the puck all the way to the net mouth. During the Olympics, Nash will have more room to make plays.
A standard Olympic rink is 200-feet long by 100-feet wide. An NHL rink is 200-feet long by 85-feet wide. The extra 15-feet in space across the ice will add an extra 3,000 square feet of ice for players like Nash to maneuver in.
Assistant coach of Team Canada and Nash's former bench boss Ken Hitchcock spoke with Dan Rosen of NHL.com and talked about the differences players will experience in Sochi.
The game in Vancouver [2010 Olympics] was very much a NHL game. It felt like a NHL game and it looked like a NHL game, but it's going to be different in Europe because we're going to play against more quickness, more agility than we have ever seen in our lives.
This is important because, with the extra space, Nash will need to make more of a concerted effort to go to the net. If he stays too far on the outside, his shots will fall short of the net, and he won't be an effective player.
Nash should be able to benefit greatly in Sochi because of his aforementioned linemates. Toews is one of the NHL's preeminent passers, and he was dynamite with Nash during the 2010 Winter Olympics. He's a center that can thread the needle, and he will get Nash the puck in shooting situations.
Sharp is also an amazing two-way sniper with a great shot, and he should attract a lot of attention from opposing defenders. This will give Nash some extra space, and it will allow him to use his size and speed to create more scoring opportunities.
Ultimately, this is a short experience that will only last two weeks, but this two week "boot camp" should charge Nash up. He knows what is at stake. He realizes why he was brought to New York, and he realizes that silver is more important than gold this year.
If Nash gets hot in Sochi, he could be a huge X-factor for the Blueshirts down the stretch. The Rangers' scoring depth has improved, their defense is coming along and Henrik Lundqvist once again looks like a world-class netminder.
Winning or losing the Stanley Cup this year could come down to Nash's ability to score. If Nash can score two or three clutch goals per round for the Rangers, that could be the difference between winning a series in five games as opposed to seven.
That extra rest could then enable the Blueshirts to be a fresher team, and thus a better team as the playoffs continue. Some of you may be scratching your head at this point, but keep reading.
Like other sports, hockey is a sport where you combine the mental and the physical. Sochi will temporarily transplant these NHLers into a playoff-like atmosphere. The aura can become intoxicating and addictive.
For a player like Nash, this is something the Rangers want. They want him to become consumed with bettering himself. They want him to take himself to new highs, and they want him to be a key part to solving a puzzle twenty years in the making.
Watch Nash closely in Sochi. Watch what he is capable of, and take note of how effective he is. Chances are, if Canada goes far, Nash will be determined to experience the thrill of playoff hockey come April and May.
This may all be forward and wishful thinking, but don't kid yourself—Nash knows what is at stake—and chances are, he wants to pick up as much hardware as he can this season.
Unless noted, stats are via NHL.com, The Hockey News or Hockey-Reference.