With Nash playing in Columbus for the first time since the blockbuster trade that brought him to New York two summers ago, we saw a side of him that's rarely seen. The usually calm and composed former captain dropped his mitts against Columbus’ Matt Calvert, trading punches in a rare outburst of emotion. This came just one period after he nailed Blue Jackets netminder Sergei Bobrovsky in the throat with a robust crosscheck.
Maybe it was the boos from the Blue Jackets fans, maybe it was the earlier whacks Bobrovsky took, but, either way, Nash appeared to harness some raw, untapped emotions. He became emboldened to play with some edge. Nash didn't end up on the score sheet that night, but it didn't matter. The Rangers' bench was thrilled.
Nash hasn’t yet had a moment like that in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Not in the four games his Blue Jackets were swept by the Detroit Red Wings back in 2009, and not since arriving on Broadway with the billing of bona fide game-breaker.
Although he led the team with 26 goals this regular season, he has just one in 16 total playoff games as a Ranger. And, despite a frenzied effort on his last shift in the third period of Friday night's 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in which he monopolized the puck and buzzed the net, he couldn’t score that type of clutch goal the Rangers so desperately needed to take a two-game series edge.
“Rick really wants to do well, and he’s trying every shift he’s on the ice to put his best foot forward. It’s a tough league. The opposition, when you have an elite player like that, obviously has a plan. He’s got to keep working. He’s got to try to elevate his game. He knows he’s a big part of us having success, winning games and moving forward,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said after practice Saturday. “The one thing I don’t have doubt about him is his willingness.”
What must be frustrating about Nash’s lack of success in the playoffs, to his team and to the fans, is the sort of tools with which he is equipped. He has been one of the Rangers’ top possession players all season, with one of the best Fenwick ratings in the regular season and through the first four games of this playoff series. He is a big body, strong on his skates and tough to move off the puck. But, beyond the size, he has the skill. Not many hulking forwards have the same sort of finesse Nash possesses, but he hasn’t seemed to find a way to exploit both facets of his game.
And for a guy who is clear about what he needs to do to be successful -- Nash always says he is at his best when he is driving the net hard and getting to the dirty areas of the ice -- he seems reluctant to do so.
“I don’t think it was difficult enough,” Nash told reporters after Friday’s game when asked about the pressure mounted against Flyers goaltender Steve Mason. “Get more traffic, more primary scoring chances. We had a lot of stuff from the outside.”
To be fair, the Flyers have pinpointed Nash as a key player to contain. Not only him but a first line that also includes young center Derek Stepan and veteran forward Martin St. Louis. Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn did masterful work in neutralizing Nash’s effectiveness Friday night, so much so that Flyers coach Craig Berube -- not someone effusive when it comes to praise -- almost gushed about his performance.
“I thought Coburn had a great game. He really skated tonight. He was strong on the puck, strong on his breakout plays. He did a great job down low against Nash,” Berube said. “He’s not an easy guy to check.”
Nash was rendered ineffective when the team needed him most last spring, in a physical semifinal series against the Boston Bruins in which the Rangers were outclassed in pretty much all areas: size, snarl and skill. He managed just one goal that series. It stands as his lone playoff marker as a Blueshirt, one that came in a 5-2 loss. With the first-round series against the Flyers tied 2-2, New York can’t afford to have him be absent again.
The Rangers gave up a ton to get him two years ago, after a disappointing loss in the Eastern Conference finals to the New Jersey Devils that left them feeling they lacked just one pivotal piece. They took on his hefty, eight-year, $62.4 million contract with confidence they were investing in a star.
Now, it’s time for him to play like one.
“It’s his time. It’s our team’s time,” Vigneault said. “This is a team game. He’s a big part of that, and he’s trying to do his best.”