Last Friday in Pittsburgh Henrik Lundqvist sat in his corner stall in the CONSOL Energy Center visitor's dressing room following the Rangers 4-3 shootout victory over the first-place Penguins which concluded a stretch of five wins in six games, and an even more successful 16-6-1 run to the Olympic break for the Blueshirts. Lundqvist spoke about how proud he was of how the Rangers finished their schedule before the break, and then a large smile came across his face.
"Mentally now I am switching gears, I am putting on the yellow and blue," said Lundqvist, referring to the colors of his native Sweden.
For a man as focused as Lundqvist, switching gears is not as easy as it sounds, but when it comes to playing in the Olympics and having only a small finite amount of time to prepare with a new group of teammates and then to take part in a head-spinning two-week tournament, those gears must shift very quickly in order to achieve any level of success.
So after resurrecting his own personal season and helping his Rangers do the same over the past six weeks or so, Lundqvist will enter the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia on a roll, with his focus now squarely on winning another gold medal as opposed to getting the Blueshirts in the playoffs and on their way to a Stanley Cup run.
"You've been thinking about it for months, but now you can really start to mentally prepare for what is ahead," Lundqvist said of the Olympics. "It's going to be a great challenge and a great experience. I really look forward to going over there and competing."
Lundqvist and other NHL players chartered from Newark Airport to Sochi on Sunday, arriving in Russia yesterday. He practiced with his Swedish teammates Monday; and on Wednesday Sweden will play the first men's hockey contest of these Winter Games when they face the Czech Republic.
This being his third time taking part in the Olympics Lundqvist is well-prepared for the challenges individually and collectively that will take place these next two weeks. In 2006 in Turin, Italy a 23 year-old Lundqvist — then a rookie with the Rangers — led Sweden to the gold medal, winning five of six starts including the gold medal game against Finland. Four years later Sweden failed to medal in the Vancouver Games, though Lundqvist had a tournament-best 1.34 goals against average and two shutouts while winning two of three starts.
"I look at it as a great experience, a great challenge, something that not a lot of people get to experience," offered Lundqvist, who enters the Olympics having won his last five starts with the Rangers and having allowed two goals or fewer in nine of his last 12 appearances. "You want to go out there, have fun, enjoy that moment. Yeah it's a lot of pressure, but there's a lot of pressure to play here (in New York), as well. You just have to enjoy that moment because you don't get that many opportunities to go (to the Olympics)."
Sweden is the heavy favorite in Group C, a grouping of countries that includes the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Latvia. Lundqvist is the clear-cut No. 1 goalie for Sweden, though it's possible that either Jhonas Enroth or Jonas Gustavsson could make a start in one of the preliminary round games.
Lundqvist will be joined by fellow Ranger Carl Hagelin, a first-time Olympian, on the Swedish squad. After Friday's victory in Pittsburgh Lundqvist jokingly declared that the only Rangers teammate he would talk to over the next couple weeks would be Hagelin, though on the plane ride home he engaged in quite a bit of good-natured back and forth with his Blueshirt teammates about who was going to win the gold medal and which country has the best colors and best uniforms.
Before leaving the team's charter late Friday night/Saturday morning Lundqvist received well-wishes and hugs from the likes of Cam Talbot--the Rangers backup goaltender, and a Canadian citizen--and Anton Stralman — a fellow Swede who told Lundqvist to bring home the gold.
The quest for gold starts Wednesday for Lundqvist and Hagelin, though the Rangers other Olympians — Rick Nash, Ryan Callahan, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, and Mats Zuccarello — will not play their first games until Thursday.