New York Rangers right wing Rick Nash is playing like a guy determined to make Steve Yzerman and Mike Babcock look smart for selecting him to play for Canada in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
After initially slumping in his return to the lineup after a near six-week absence because of a concussion, Nash has scored two goals in each of the past two games, five in the past three and nine over the past nine to give himself a team-leading 16 goals despite the fact he missed 17 games with his injury.
"They called me and said based off my past performances that I'm a big part to the team," Nash said of the Canadian Olympic team. "It was definitely reassuring and an honor. They stuck their head out there to put me on the team, to put my name out there, and now I have to prove that I belong there."
Nash has rediscovered his old form because he's using the power part of his game to generate quality scoring chances, but that's not necessarily why he was picked to play in his third Olympics.
He has always played well on the big ice in Europe. The sheet in Sochi will be 15 feet wider and offer an extra 3,000 square feet of ice, but Nash has never had a problem making the transition to the bigger rink like some other North American players.
He thrived playing for Canada in IIHF World Championships in Austria (2005), Russia (2006) and Slovakia (2011). He was a dominant player for HC Davos in the Swiss National League A during the past two lockouts.
Nash has 50 points in 47 games playing for Canada's national team, including 32 points in 31 games on the big ice. He also had 13 points in 11 games on the big ice in his junior career.
"There are different angles, more space between the boards and dots, and I feel you have an extra second or half a second to make a play," Nash said of the big ice. "I feel comfortable on it. I don't feel lost. Some guys who haven't played on it a lot will feel lost, but I don't, I feel comfortable."
Some players who aren't used to the big ice don't know what to do with the extra half-second or second of time, but Nash said he uses it to patiently see and make the next play.
Ken Hitchcock, Canada's associate coach and Nash's former coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets, credited his defensive anticipation as another reason why Nash has been so successful on the big ice.
"He knows the next lane that the puck is being passed to and he anticipates and picks off a lot of plays," Hitchcock said. "I think it gets magnified on the big ice because he's able to do it by not starting and stopping. He can do it in motion, and like I said he has great anticipation where the opposition is moving the puck and can pick a lot of passes off."
Nash's defensive anticipation or awareness is another reason why Babcock wanted Nash on his team in Sochi. As he was during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Nash will be a shutdown guy for Canada and likely paired with Jonathan Toews on the penalty kill.
Canada's best line by the end of the Olympics in Vancouver was Toews between Nash and Mike Richards, who did not make the team this time around.
"None us were really worried about where Rick's game was at because we knew what he and Toews did as a pair in 2010 and we knew how effective they would be on the big ice," Hitchcock said. "We knew if we didn't use them in offensive roles they would be more than capable defensively, whether it was playing against top players or killing penalties. We know how good Rick is. We anticipate that he's going to be a heck of a PK guy."
But to be effective on the offensive side Nash knows he has to continue playing on the inside, which has been the most drastic change in his game over the past few weeks and has led to better scoring chances and more production.
After talking with New York's coaches and watching himself on video, Nash said he knew he was playing on the outside for too long after he returned from his concussion on Nov. 19. He blamed it on hesitation in his game, as he was trying to find his form again after being out of the lineup and off the ice for so long.
Left Wing - NYR
GOALS: 16 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 25
SOG: 141 | +/-: 4
Nash had seven goals in his first 23 games back from injury, but that included a stretch of 11 games in which he scored only one goal (Dec. 12 - Jan. 4).
"It's hard when you come back from an injury, especially the injury I was coming back from, to get back on the inside," Nash said. "It took a while for me to figure out my game again. Finally, once I had the feel of my game back, that's when I started producing again.
"You can't hide when you watch yourself on video," he later added. "It's easy to sit back and watch and as we all know it's easy to dictate from upstairs or from in front of the TV, but when you're out there the game is so fast and there are so many things going on, so it's tough. I definitely watched my game and I saw myself on the outside a lot more than I wanted to be. It's tough to realize in the moment that you're doing it, but as you're watching video and you learn that once you get on the inside it's a lot better."
If he plays his defensive role the right way in Sochi he should have chances on the offensive end as well.
Babcock and Yzerman aren't looking for huge numbers from Nash, but to name him to the team before Nash started to showcase his best hockey shows how much faith they have in the national team veteran.
"He struggled early, especially coming back off of injury, and probably wasn't as engaged as he should be, but he looks like he's getting his game going," Babcock said. "He played real well for me in the times I had him. He's a good player, big body. Obviously he's an elite, elite player, but he can skate and think. At that level he's not a dynamic scorer or anything, but he's a real solid player."