For some Rangers, Sochi Olympics break a chance to get much-needed rest

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Henrik Lundqvist defends his net in the second

Henrik Lundqvist defends his net in the second period of a game against the Philadelphia Flyers at Madison Square Garden. (Jan. 12, 2014) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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Steve Zipay Newsday columnist Steve Zipay

Steve Zipay is an award-winning journalist who has covered events from Super Bowls to World Series and issues

The Olympic break is here and the Rangers are scattered, from Russia to Canada to the Bahamas, until a mini-camp opens Feb. 20 to prepare for the last quarter of the season, and presumably, a journey to the playoffs in Alain Vigneault's first season as Rangers coach.

Just before the hiatus, the Blueshirts stumbled against the Oilers on Thursday but rebounded with a shootout win in Pittsburgh. The Rangers are 32-24-3, and were just two points out of third place in the Eastern Conference entering Saturday night's games.

"I am expecting [the seven Ranger Olympians] to come back and be really excited about this final push and helping us," Vigneault said. "The guys that don't play will get the rest they need."

Two things to watch: The March 5 NHL trade deadline, and how the team will respond in the remaining 23 games, when not only the Rangers roster, but those of other contenders, likely will be enhanced.

But for both players and fans, the Winter Games are the initial focus.

The host squad, Team Russia, is under enormous pressure, as was Canada in Vancouver in 2010. But so is Sweden, which won gold in 2006. "You can look at that way, and just make it tough on yourself," said Henrik Lundqvist, who will backstop the Swedish squad again. "Or you look at it as a great experience, a great challenge, something that not a lot of people get to experience, so you enjoy that moment. Yeah, it's a lot of pressure, but there's a lot of pressure here, too. It's all about balance . . . you need to feel good about yourself. The first couple of days is about adjusting when you get there, the time zone, your teammates, the bigger rink [200 x 100]."

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Rangers left wing Carl Hagelin, who will be Lundqvist's teammate and who played for Sweden in the world juniors, thinks the larger surface may be an advantage for players who skated on those rinks growing up, and could lead to lower-scoring games.

In the NHL, said Hagelin, "you're closer to the net all the time, so you can take shots from anywhere. When it's the big ice, you're discouraged a little bit because you're so far away."

Will NHL send players to Olympics in 2018?

During the first period in Pittsburgh on Friday, the 14 Olympians on the Rangers and Penguins, plus Team USA coach Dan Bylsma, were listed, by country, on the center ice scoreboard, to appreciative applause from the CONSOL Energy Center crowd.

But if it's about business, this could be the final Winter Olympics for the NHL, potentially replaced by the return of an eight-team World Cup, which was held in 1996 and 2004.

With 150 NHLers in Sochi -- and all players still being paid -- both the league and the NHLPA, which now split revenues under the collective bargaining agreement, must decide whether to send players to the games in South Korea in 2018.

Think about it. For the NHL, the Sochi exposure is limited with early-morning games in the East. The period for which the league is shuttered is the longest ever, which could affect the competitiveness and health of the teams down the stretch. Few NHL owners are in Russia; can anyone imagine them hanging in Pyeongchang?

Under discussion: A third World Cup every two years, starting in late August through early September, simultaneous to training camps, in North American venues. A preliminary round for European teams would be staged overseas.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has called himself "a believer" in the timing and "in places that we can control, which makes a whole lot more sense for us. We think it's good for international hockey as well."

And amateurs would compete in the Olympics again.

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BAGEL AND PUCKS: Team USA on the air

Set your alarm. Team USA's three Group A games in the preliminary round will be televised live on NBC Sports Network:

Thursday, Feb. 13 vs. Slovakia (7:30 a.m.)

Saturday, Feb. 15 vs. Russia (7 a.m.)

Sunday, Feb. 16 vs. Slovenia (7:15 a.m.)

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Steve's Sochi picks

GOLD: Sweden. Weakened without injured Henrik Sedin, but strong goaltending, experienced on larger surface.

SILVER: Canada. Defending champs have deepest roster.

BRONZE: USA. Built for speed, but can they score enough?

WILD CARD: Russia.

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