NEW YORK -- Frustration is mounting and the agitation is palpable, and at no time was that more evident than when the restless crowd at Madison Square Garden unleashed their dissatisfaction on embattled winger Rick Nash.
With the New York Rangers trailing the Pittsburgh Penguins in the third period and the top-line forward struggling mightily in yet another critical postseason game, fans booed Nash when he touched the puck. They directed their ire at Nash, not just for his own personal failings, but the team’s overall ineptitude in the club’s 4-2 loss Wednesday night -- a defeat that leaves them trailing 3-1 in the series.
Either way, it touched a nerve.
Nash’s teammates weren’t happy with it. Neither was his coach.
“Does it upset me? Yeah. It upsets everybody in the locker room,” veteran center and alternate captain Brad Richards said. “We’re not 15th in the league ... we’re in the second round of the playoffs. But that’s my opinion. I understand sports and where it’s all at, so does he, so does everyone in here, but it’s not one person, it isn’t. It’s the whole team. As a team, we didn’t play tonight, and for one guy, two guys to get booed or whatever it is, that’s frustrating for us as a team because we all put our foot in this together tonight.”
Vigneault was careful to couch his answer, deferring to the fans’ right to show their anger, but he made an impassioned plea for a different response should the Rangers stave off elimination in Game 5 on Friday and force a Game 6 back at the Garden.
“Ultimately the fans can do what they want,” Vigneault said. “I prefer right now, if fans were supportive. It may not look it right now, but we’re trying our guts off here.”
Nash wasn't the only star that failed the get the job done. Martin St. Louis had one particularly rough outing, Derek Stepan's game continued to flounder and defenseman Ryan McDonagh has looked uncharacteristically for the entire post-season. Nash, however, is becoming the whipping boy for the team's collection of no-shows.
Though he lead the team with four shots on goal Wednesday night, it has been the quality of chances that are making fans turn on the two-time Olympic gold medalist. Too many of those chances seem to come from the perimeter and not nearly enough from driving to the net. He passed up a wide-open shot during the first period, when the Rangers penned Pittsburgh in for extended zone time; he wasn’t able to corral a bouncing puck for a clean attempt later in the game. Whether he’s just in a rut or whether he’s become more passive in his play as a result of his recent concussion history (and honestly, if that’s the case, who could blame him?), he isn’t putting his head down and bulling his way to the crease. He isn’t using his size, skill or creativity to get to the dirty areas.
And for that, the fans let him know that won’t be tolerated.
After the game, Nash seemed well aware that the treatment comes with the territory of playing in a big market and under the terms of a whopping eight-year contract that pays him $7.8 annually. Playing in Columbus might have allowed him to avoid the same sort of scrutiny, but he will not escape that criticism here. Wednesday was a stark reminder that no matter how many 30, or even 40-goal seasons he has had in the past, they will be rendered moot without playoff success.
And now he finds himself in that unenviable position: Just one goal in 23 playoff games in his two years with the Rangers. And not one yet during the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs.
“It doesn’t matter what you do all year,” Nash said. “It matters what you do in the playoffs, when things count. And, obviously I’ve been struggling.”
This is not the first time that Rangers fans have proven fickle. After all, we have seen this before.
Marian Gaborik was scapegoated during the 2012 playoffs, labeled as the type of guy you couldn’t count on during crunch time, only for it to be revealed later that he was playing through a significant shoulder injury that required surgery later that summer.
Richards got his turn as the target, when his play regressed and he was ultimately benched, prompting many fans to clamor for the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner to be bought out.
Meanwhile, Gaborik is doing just fine as a game-breaker for the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference semifinals. And though Richards might not be able to avoid the buyout this summer, it won’t be because of performance or leadership (he has been, for some time, the de facto captain of this club), but rather the crippling cap recapture penalties looming should he retire before the expiry of his nine-year contract in 2020.
So, this begs the question: What does the future hold for Nash?
Can the team afford to hang onto him if he continues to fail to produce in the playoffs? Do they have a choice?
Nash is still an elite goal-scorer. He led the team with 26 goals this season and has amassed 336 goals in eleven seasons in the NHL. But his cap hit is prohibitive, which would greatly curtail the number of teams that could have interest in trading for the former first overall draft pick. Complicating matters is that he has a no-trade clause and doesn’t have to go anywhere he doesn’t see as a good fit.
All this is speculative at this point, but these will certainly be questions that arise if the Rangers go down swiftly in yet another five-game set during the second round of the playoffs. If Nash doesn’t find a way to show some life or find the back of the net, those questions will only persist.
“Obviously, he feels a lot of pressure right now and I have to tell you, he’s battling real hard,” Vigneault said. “Maybe we can rally around that and have a good game in Pittsburgh.”