‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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Pressure? Rick Nash doesn’t feel it. The newest toast of the New York sports scene has made a seamless transition from the cellar-dwelling Columbus Blue Jackets to the bright lights of Broadway.
Nash has gone from playoff-starved Columbus to the Madison Square Garden penthouse on 33rd street, and he’s enjoying every moment on the big stage. Some players are just born to handle the pressured fishbowl of New York. Derek Jeter, Mark Messier, Joe Namath, Willis Reed and Eli Manning – you can now add Nash’s name to that list, because he delivers when it matters most.
All of Nash’s seven goals this season have come in the third period. He was able to put two stylish goals past Ilya Bryzgalov in the third period of Tuesday’s 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers.
His powerful, broad shoulders might be big enough to carry the hopes of the reignited Rangers, who haven’t reached the Stanley Cup Finals since 1994. Lay the pressure on him, because he craves it and thrives off it.
“That’s my job, that’s what I’m trying to do,” Nash stated. “These fans are great. It’s fun for me to play in front of a sold-out building in a hockey city that truly loves the Rangers. I think it’s fun for our whole team to perform in front of these fans.”
There’s a rush of anticipation inside the Garden whenever Nash touches the puck. This season, the atmosphere at MSG has been somewhat subdued, but there’s a rise of energy that builds whenever Nash picks up the puck and skates in dangerously on an opposing goalie.
Nash made Bryzgalov look helpless on Tuesday night. On his go-ahead first goal, Nash squeezed a snapper underneath Brygalov’s armpit. The enigmatic Flyers goalie flopped around like a fish out of water as he bit on Nash’s crafty deke on his back-handed second goal.
It’s not just the fans who are grinning from ear-to-ear whenever Nash turns an opposing net-minder inside out. Throughout his Rangers’ career, reigning Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist was forced to do much of the heavy lifting by playing near-perfect in net. From the time that Nash pulled on the Rangers’ sweater, Lundqvist could finally breathe a little easier knowing that Nash is capable of taking command of any game.
“I just started smiling after he scored the second goal,” a relieved Lundqvist said. “It just feels so good to have a player like that on the team who can be the difference every night. This guy’s huge for us. We have a lot of guys who can step up, but he just brings it to another level.”
‘Moves Like Jagr’
Lundqvist went on to directly compare Nash to another Ranger great, whose individual brilliance and game-breaking ability entertained the Garden faithful and left teammates stunned in disbelief. That player was former Rangers’ captain Jaromir Jagr. With them moves like Jagr — he’s got the moves like Jagr, he’s got the moo-ooo-ooo-ooo-ooves like Jagr.
“Jags was at his best here. He was that type of player. Nash is doing things right now that are very impressive to see and fun to see,” Lundqvist stated.
More than skills comparable to Jagr though, Nash has something else in him. He has this driven, carry-you-on-my-back kind of nature. Give him the puck, he wants to the be man to shoulder the burden.
“He wants that puck. He’s calling for it all game,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “It’s exciting to see. We want to give it to him, he creates so much. He creates chaos. D-men can’t hang with him. He scores in so many different ways – a heck of a guy to have on your team.”
You name the way, Nash knows how to score it. Chaos is certainly the right word to describe what Nash can do to any opposing defense and goalie combo. No team is safe.
“Nasher uses his reach, he uses his size, sometimes he uses a d-man as a screen. He beats guys in so many different ways. It’s incredible to see,” McDonagh explained.
With Nash, the Rangers are 11-5-1. Without his presence in the lineup, they’re 0-3-1. Since returning from a four-game absence, Nash has raised his game by collecting four goals, two assists and six points in his past three games.
The Rangers were very tight-lipped over the reason why Nash missed four games, causing some to speculate his brief absence was caused by a concussion. Either way, Nash has been incredible on his recent seven-game stretch. He’s on a seven-game points streak, totaling five goals, six assists and 11 points.
More importantly, the Rangers have elevated their play after dropping four games and only managing a single overtime loss point while Nash was sidelined. The Blueshirts are now officially in a playoff position at eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 24 points.
It’s not where the Rangers expected to be near the midway point of the season, but Nash’s galvanizing presence gives reason to believe New York can make a run at toppling the Atlantic Division-leading Pittsburgh Penguins and perhaps repeating as the number one playoff seed in consecutive seasons.
Nash brings that kind of belief to this city, his fans and his teammates. He’s been everything the Rangers expected him to be – and more.
Is Nash the ultimate game-changer? Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartnettHockey.