- Katie Strang, ESPN.com
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We're now less than a month from the Sochi Olympics, and the buildup to the hockey tournament has been rife with both excitement and controversy. While the majority of NHLers will pack their bags for an exotic locale or hole up at home for a cozy stay-cation during the break, elite players will battle on the big ice for a chance at a gold medal. Here are six things to watch when it comes to your local New York/New Jersey Olympians:
1. Can Lundqvist find an extra gear?
Despite a dip in his recent play, Henrik Lundqvist remains the clear-cut No. 1 starting goaltender for Team Sweden, which is more than we've been able to say at times for him during a disappointing first half of the 2013-14 season. Lundqvist relishes competing for his native country in international play and has earned the top prize before, when Sweden won at the 2006 Torino Games.
This tournament may be exactly what he needs to re-establish his game at an elite level. The 2012 Vezina Trophy winner has yet to really get on a roll this season, but maybe he'll establish a groove across the pond.
He'll have a stacked team in front of him that boasts a roster of experienced forwards such as Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Daniel Alfredsson and Henrik Zetterberg, and a back end that features some exciting young talent in Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
2. Will Tavares finally receive some recognition?
OK, so he has not flown completely under the radar. After all, John Tavares was one of the top three finalists for last season's Hart Trophy. But the Olympic stage will provide yet another platform for the center to showcase his skills on an international scale.
The former first overall pick may not play his natural pivot position because of Canada's tremendous depth down the middle, but he will play with what appears to be the strongest forward group in the Games. That'll be a bit different for Tavares, who has shouldered the bulk of the load for his struggling Islanders the past four seasons. It should be interesting to see what he can do when playing with some of the most dynamic guys in the game.
3. What will we see from Jagr and the unpredictable Czechs?
Get this: 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr, who will play in his fifth Olympics when he takes the ice in Sochi, isn't even the oldest guy on the Czech team. Nope, that dubious honor goes to 42-year-old Petr Nedved, who was a somewhat surprising selection (especially considering he won silver for Team Canada back in the 1994 Games). Although Jagr's beard is graying, his game is still looking pretty robust. He leads the New Jersey Devils in scoring with 13 goals and 35 points. Next in line is Patrik Elias, who will join him on the Czech team. The team opens against Sweden, but if there's anything to learn from Jagr's stunning first half this season, it's never to count the veteran out.
4. Will the U.S. medal?
The Americans lost in the gold-medal game to the Canadians four years ago in Vancouver on Sidney Crosby's memorable overtime game winner, a play Ryan Callahan certainly remembers well. The 28-year-old Rangers captain, joined by teammates Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan on the U.S. team, is one of four returning members from that group, and you can bet he has more than enough motivation to exact revenge.
Callahan, who recently missed three weeks with a sprained right knee, is in a contract year, with no signs of an extension imminent. The Rangers will be keeping their fingers crossed that he emerges from the Olympics unscathed, while other general managers may be keeping a close watch on the spark-plug forward as the March 5 trade deadline approaches.
5. Will Zuccarello lead the dark-horse Norway squad?
Diminutive winger Mats Zuccarello was the lone NHLer named to the Norwegian national team, so look for him to lead the way. Heck, he's been leading the way for the Rangers, too, in recent weeks. The 26-year-old forward, discovered by the Rangers after some standout performances in international play, leads the team both in goals (10) and points (30). What's more impressive is that the stretch he's put together came after a brief stint in coach Alain Vigneault's doghouse while serving as a healthy scratch.
6. Will Rick Nash help Canada's effort to win back-to-back gold medals?
The star winger has been impressive in international play, although his game this season for the Rangers has left something to be desired.
Granted, he missed almost six weeks with a concussion, but Nash has been inconsistent. At times, absolutely electrifying. Others? Downright ineffective. In fact, his underwhelming nine-goal, 18-point campaign left some fans disgruntled at his selection, with Martin St. Louis and James Neal notable forward omissions.
It's not just the entire country of Canada that needs Nash to find his game. Similar to Lundqvist's situation, the Rangers have to hope that No. 61 can turn it up a notch and improve his play heading into the last few months of the season.
We're now less than a month from the Sochi Olympics, and the buildup to the hockey tournament has been rife with both excitement and controversy. While the majority of NHLers will pack their bags for an exotic locale or hole up at home for a cozy stay-cation during the break, elite players will battle on the big ice for a chance at a gold medal.