Slump over: Nash delivers for Rangers

MONTREAL -- The New York Rangers' well-balanced, four-line offensive attack has been a strength of the team this postseason. It became absolutely critical when some of the club’s top players were slumping.

That sort of depth continues to shine as the Rangers keep rolling through the Eastern Conference playoffs with a 2-0 series lead against the Montreal Canadiens, but there is reason to believe that the team’s star forwards are beginning to emerge.

The recent play of Rick Nash has been particularly encouraging, especially given the big man’s pronounced struggles earlier this spring.

Nash was acquired by the Rangers in a blockbuster trade two summers ago, seen as the type of centerpiece player that could put New York into the group of elite Stanley Cup contenders. In his first four playoff series as a Blueshirt, he failed to live up to the billing, with only one goal in 26 games. The low point occurred during the second round, when he was booed by the Madison Square Garden fans as a convenient scapegoat.

As veteran center Brad Richards said, “The good thing about a slump is that it’s going to end,” and most close observers of the team assumed Nash's time was coming soon. After all, he entered this series with a league-leading 52 shots.

Fortunately for the Rangers, the 29-year-old Nash embraced the team’s trip to the Eastern Conference finals as a clean slate and has reversed his misfortune. Nash was credited with the game winner in Monday’s 3-1 victory over the Habs in Game 2, his second goal in as many games.

“As a player that’s gone through slumps, it’s hard to get out of it and it’s hard to almost find a way to score a goal,” Nash’s linemate Derek Stepan said Tuesday morning at the team hotel. “For him to find a way to score a goal in Game 1 and then score a goal in Game 2, it’s good for us and we’re going to need him to continue to score goals.”

There was no hesitation when Nash pulled the trigger and fired the puck off a cross-ice feed from linemate Chris Kreider. He looked confident, poised and dangerous.

Just two days earlier, Nash had snapped his debilitating slump, one that stretched 14 games through two seven-game series this spring, with a garbage-time power-play goal. With the Rangers already pummeling the Habs, it wasn’t a critical goal for the team, but in retrospect it was probably a monumental one for Nash, if only in terms of the mental relief it provided.

“Hockey’s our life, hockey’s our job. This is what we do 24/7, so when something’s not going right, you feel it in the dressing room, during the games, at home, no matter what,” Nash said.

Head coach Alain Vigneault tried to alleviate some of the pressure Nash was feeling. But there was only so much he could say until Nash finally broke through and found the back of the net.

That, Vigneault hopes, will be enough to keep him producing for the Rangers at a consistent clip.

“You tell them all the lines, ‘I have faith in ya, you’re working really hard,’ and da-dee-da-da-da, but at the end of the day, they’ve got to work themselves through it and they’ve got to believe in themselves,” Vigneault said. “That’s what Rick did and that’s what most of our guys tried to do.”

It’s not just Nash that has come on, either. Martin St. Louis has scored twice this series, while defenseman Ryan McDonagh has recorded six points in the past six periods.

Balance is key for any team, but having your top players all producing at the right time seems to be a harbinger of good things to come.

“I think it’s safe to say everybody expected Rick to score,” Vigneault said. “We brought him in for his offensive production. He was going through what players go through now and then, a tough spell. He stuck with it, his teammates stuck with it by working extremely hard. It was just a matter of time, in our estimation, for him to come out of it and now it looks good for us.”