Pressure mounts on Rick Nash, but other Rangers slumping, too

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- New York Rangers winger Rick Nash was one of the best players on the ice in Game 3 against the Washington Capitals, but the pressure and the questions persist.

This is something that the three-time 40-goal scorer has come to understand. No matter how much respect you can earn with regular-season production -- and he earned plenty with a career-high 42 goals this season -- all that equity evaporates once the playoffs begin.

If you’re not scoring when it really counts, don’t expect to slink away unscathed.

“It’s true, but that’s the way it is,” Nash said when asked about the intense scrutiny he’s facing this postseason. “The high-paid guys that are supposed to score are supposed to in the playoffs. When that doesn’t happen, this is to be expected.”

Nash was dutiful in trotting out Tuesday afternoon to field reporters' questions, many of which were different versions of those that followed the Rangers’ 1-0 loss in Game 3. Game 4 is Wednesday night here, with the Caps up 2-1 in the series.

In his even-keeled, unassuming way, Nash said all the right things.

He said that he isn't satisfied with simply playing well. That he’s got to be better. That it’s only whether the team wins or loses that really matters to him.

He didn’t lash out, or pout, or sulk, as some players are prone to do when they are shouldering the heap of the responsibility. Rather, he seems to accept that this simply comes with the territory of playing under a lucrative contract (one that comes with an annual cap hit of $7.8 million) and lofty expectations.

“He could score a hat trick and his demeanor, his personality, would not change,” alternate captain Marc Staal told ESPN.com when asked about how Nash was handling the stress.

That steadiness likely will serve him well as he finds himself in the middle of a barrage of criticism again while struggling to find the back of the net. Despite an inspired effort in Game 3 -- during which he managed a game-high 15 shot attempts, seven shots on goal and to be as physically engaged as he has been all series -- he has scored only one goal in eight games this postseason.

Perhaps more onerous is that he has scored just five goals over 45 playoff games during his tenure as a New York Ranger: A drought in February can be overlooked; the same sort of slump in May is much more glaring.

“This is a results-oriented business, and you can play real well and do the right things with and without the puck at both ends and through the neutral zone,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. "But at the end of the day, you expect Martin St. Louis to find the back of the net. You expect Rick Nash to find the back of the net. You expect Derick Brassard to help those two guys and himself find the back of the net."

As Vigneault adroitly pointed out, Nash is not alone here, and the team’s top line still is dealing with the reverberations of losing forward Mats Zuccarello, one of the team’s most creative and dynamic players and one with whom Nash had forged significant chemistry.

“If he’s not our best player up front, he’s not too far from that,” Brassard said. “The way he plays the game, it’s obviously a big loss for our team. We’re trying not to think about it too much.”

St. Louis has filled Zuccarello’s spot on the right wing on that top line since Zuccarello was hit by a puck in the head in the Rangers' first-round series finale against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Along with Nash, St. Louis was terrific in Monday’s losing effort, and yet St. Louis is still searching for his first goal this postseason. If anyone can empathize with what Nash is going through, it’s him.

“He’s playing well. He’s gotten a lot of looks. He’s fighting in the right areas. He’s getting on the inside. His play is strong,” St. Louis said. “He deserves to be rewarded.”

Take a cursory glance at the numbers and it’s easy to assume that Nash will break out soon. The 30-year-old winger ranks fourth in total shots this postseason, and his 3.1 percent shooting percentage is drastically lower than the 13.8 he sustained over the course of his 79 games played this regular season.

Nash also was one of the league leaders with 2.87 points per 60 minutes during the regular season, according to hockeyanalysis.com. However, he has only five points in eight games -- or 1.07 points per 60 minutes -- this postseason. One would think those numbers are bound to trend upward.

“When you’re an offensive player and you have scoring chances, at least you have positive in your game,” Brassard said. “Hopefully, that can bring him some confidence.”

The Capitals' 25-year-old goaltender deserves some credit for keeping Nash's shots out of the net. Braden Holtby has been fantastic this series in posting a 1.54 goals-against average and a .949 save percentage in 10 playoff games.

“We’re not exactly filling the net, either,” Staal pointed out about the rest of the Rangers’ contributions.

Indeed, Nash is not the only player having difficulty against Holtby; the entire team is struggling in that regard. Holtby, who entered the series as the underdog on the goaltending card, has limited the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers to a mere four goals over three games.

That’s not an issue solely for Nash to combat, even if external pressure might say otherwise.

“I like a lot of the parts of our game but, obviously, you’ve got to be able to put the puck in the net,” Vigneault said. “That’s an area we have to improve upon.”