Rick Nash finally finds 'puck luck'

They're not booing Rick Nash at Madison Square Garden these days, that's for sure.

With eight goals in seven games to open the season -- tied with Anaheim Ducks forward Corey Perry for the NHL lead -- the New York Rangers winger is off to a sensational start.

"The puck's just finding me," Nash told ESPN.com Wednesday. "On Tuesday night [in New Jersey on the game-tying goal], I go to the net and the puck bounces right there. The first couple of games, I didn't shoot it where I aimed but it still goes in. It's a funny game. I've always found in my career, when I'm cold, I'm cold; when I'm hot, I'm hot."

As far as Nash sees it, it's mostly just about "puck luck" these days, which in part is a humble way to deflect his early season success, but also in part a way to downplay the criticism he took last spring when he scored three goals in 25 playoff games.

It was during Game 4 versus the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round that Nash bore the brunt of the MSG faithful; mind you some of his teammates got booed, too. Fair or not, Nash was criticized by many throughout the playoffs for his low goal output.

"If I had zero goals right now but we had won every game, I'd be fine with that." Rick Nash on his early success

This is where the traditional hockey world and the advanced stats community clashed. Fact is, Nash's possession numbers in the playoffs were strong. Using data from behindthenet.ca, Nash's Relative Corsi was 12.2 in the playoffs, which was topped only by Benoit Pouliot and Derick Brassard among Rangers forwards -- two guys who were lauded for their play in the postseason. Nash was putting up shots and getting zone time. In short, the numbers suggested Nash was doing the right things, just not getting rewarded for it like some of the other Rangers.

Nash said he doesn't follow the advanced stats too much, but when asked how he could have strong postseason numbers in that area yet only three goals, he responded: "It's pretty remarkable how you don't get those bounces at all for that many games, but it just shows that's just how it goes sometimes."

What makes Nash a valuable player is not just his goal-scoring ability. You don't need analytics to tell you what you can see with the naked eye: Nash is relentless on the backcheck and retrieves pucks with the best of them.

You need no further proof of Nash's reliability at both ends of the ice than the fact that he cracked an incredibly deep Canadian Olympic team in February in Sochi and helped it win gold, his second consecutive Olympic championship.

"To be a big part of the Canadian team as part of the shutdown line and penalty kill, and just Hockey Canada and [GM] Steve [Yzerman] showing the faith in me to be part of that team, that was a huge booster and a huge confidence thing to know that I do belong there," said the 30-year-old Nash, a well-decorated Canadian international performer.

St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock was once again part of the Canadian Olympic staff and of course coached Nash while both were with the Columbus Blue Jackets. As far as Hitchcock sees it, you can't judge Nash solely on his goal output.

"Think of it this way, similar player as Mike Modano: really solid in every aspect of 200-foot game, same for Nash," Hitchcock told ESPN.com via text message Thursday. "And the only time Nash has ever played with a center with size was when [Antoine] Vermette and him played together and it was unstoppable. When the line was Vermette, Nash and [R.J.] Umberger, nobody could stop them. Plus I'll say this, Nash is one of the best PK guys around."

But the three playoff goals in the spring invited a ton of criticism.

"Lucky for me, I don't read newspapers or watch too much hockey on TV," said Nash. "I don't really see much of that, but I know it affected my family and people around me."

Nash is the first to tell you that when things aren't going well, the higher-paid players on the team will hear about it, and that goes with the territory, and he accepts that.

But the hot start to the season will certainly help silence the critics.

It's certainly more than just puck luck, though. Nash arrived to Rangers camp in September as one of the team's best-conditioned players, according to one team source. He does look more dominant late in shifts.

"I just tried to get faster and stronger this summer," Nash said. "As you get older, you realize that you have to start keeping up with these young guys and how fast they are. I did a lot of running and a lot of foot-speed stuff."

Which is a bit of a departure from his previous offseason workouts.

"Yeah, I did more bike workouts in years past, I decided this summer to do a little bit more track training and running," he said.

So far, that work in the summer is paying off huge.

Just don't ask Nash to get too wrapped up in his puck-possession numbers or his goal-scoring tally.

The stat that matters most to him?

"Winning, getting two points in the standings," said Nash. "If I had zero goals right now but we had won every game, I'd be fine with that."

ESPN The Magazine's Craig Custance contributed to this story.