‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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Rick Nash takes a lot of unnecessary flak from columnists and fans who unrealistically expect the 6-foot-4, 213-pound winger to play like some kind of Alex Ovechkin-Milan Lucic hybrid every night.
He probably won’t win the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy again, nor will he “freight train” opponents for the entirety of 60 minutes — but there’s no doubting the unmistakable game-changing value that Nash brings to the Rangers.
Throughout most of Thursday’s regular season home finale, the Rangers played down to the level of the league-worst Buffalo Sabres. It wasn’t a pretty game, but the Rangers secured a 2-1 victory thanks to Nash’s third-period goal. The timely play, coupled with the Philadelphia Flyers losing to Tampa Bay, ended up earning the Blueshirts home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Martin St. Louis let go a cross-ice pass and with a flash Nash’s rocketed one-timer with 1:42 remaining in the third period proved to be the game-winner.
“Nasher got us a big goal and two points in the end,” Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said.
In a season where a concussion forced him to miss 17 games, Nash has scored 26 goals. Nine of them have been game-winners. That’s not bad at all.
Yet, because of his calm demeanor, Nash is often the target of detractors. Critics tend to paint Nash as some kind of friendly ghost who skates around harmlessly for 60 minutes. That couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, Nash tries to do too much by attempting to force his way through defenders to pull off difficult skill moves.
Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review ripped into Nash after the Rangers lost to the Penguins 4-3 at MSG on Dec. 18. Kovacevic branded Nash as a “dog” and a “waste of talent.”
Kovacevic has taken every opportunity to take unfair shots at Nash, including calling him out for a history of missing the playoffs.
Similar to Penguins’ superstar Sidney Crosby, Nash was expected to be “the franchise” as an 18-year-old rookie in Columbus. Indeed, Nash and the Blue Jackets missed the playoffs in eight out of nine seasons, but that has a lot to do with Columbus failing to surround him with talent due to poor drafting.
The Jackets drafted first-round busts Pascal Leclaire, Alexandre Picard and Gilbert Brule, while the Penguins surrounded Crosby with intelligent first-round picks in Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal.
Nash was essentially forced to carry the Jackets on his back. He averaged 32 goals per season in nine seasons with Columbus, so he certainly wasn’t the problem.
Rangers teammates know what Nash is about. They recognize No. 61’s tremendous value and burning desire.
“If you ask him, he wants to get the win as much as anyone,” Ryan McDonagh said earlier this season. “He’s been a leader for our team since he’s gotten here and in the past. He steps up, makes big plays and tries to get everybody involved.”
“He’s always impressed me, for sure,” Brian Boyle said earlier this season. “He’s got a lot of different things that he can do well. Obviously, he’s going to score big goals and play well. He’s been on the big stage, he’s won a couple of gold medals. He’s one of our leaders, so we’re going to need him.”
P-B-Z LINE ALL ABOUT Xs AND Os
Back to Thursday’s game … Mats Zuccarello’s line worked its usual magic and combined to score a vital tying goal with 30.4 seconds left in the second period. Derick Brassard dished off to Zuccarello, then went to the net and dragged a defender with him. Zuccarello sent a cross-ice back-handed pass directly to Pouliot, who beat Buffalo netminder Matt Hackett.
“We are tic-tac-toeing in their zone,” Pouliot said of his linemates.
Brassard hailed Pouliot’s all-around attributes.
“He’s playing well, he skates well, he wins pucks,” Brassard said. “He’s just a good all-around guy for us on the line. He’s been working hard. That’s why he’s having success. I think we play well together. We just try to find a way every game. Everyone’s style is good for everyone on the line.”
ENERGETIC FAST IMPRESSING SINCE RECALL
Since arriving on April 7, 22-year-old winger Jesper Fast has demonstrated plenty of tenacity and is showing a tendency to take the body.
“It’s tough coming in late in the season,” alternate captain Marc Staal said. “I think he’s done a good job of moving his feet and skating. Forechecking is a big part of his game. Tonight, he was all over the puck — which is good to see.”
On Thursday, Fast led all Rangers with five hits and he’s going to stick with the Blueshirts once the playoffs get underway. Chris Kreider is likely to miss the opening round.
Vigneault said he is impressed by Fast’s on-ice intelligence and physical nature.
“He’s played well,” Vigneault said. “A very smart player. He goes out on the ice and plays to his strengths. He’s much more physical than a lot of people think. I think he plays the body every opportunity he gets. So, he’s going to be a help for us.”
MCDONAGH NAMED TEAM MVP AND PLAYERS’ PLAYER
On Friday, the Rangers announced that defenseman Ryan McDonagh has been awarded the 2013-14 team MVP, which is voted on by the media.
McDonagh is the first Rangers’ defenseman to receive the award since Brian Leetch in 2002-03.
The 24-year-old also earned the Players’ Player award as voted on by Rangers teammates, which “recognizes the player who best exemplifies what it means to be a team player.”
One award McDonagh will not capture this season is the Norris Trophy. The Chicago Blackhawks’ Duncan Keith is the overwhelming favorite.
Even though McDonagh will not win the prestigious award given to the NHL’s top defenseman, his offensive game has grown in leaps and bounds because Vigneault has given him the “green light” to join the attack whenever he desires.
“His game has just blossomed because of the fact he’s able to be more confident with the puck,” Derek Stepan said earlier this season. “It’s something that I’ve seen with Mac since I’ve started with him. It’s no secret that defensively he’s very difficult to beat and he’s probably one of the best defensive defensemen. Now, you guys are going to get to see a little bit of his offensive side. He’s got a big offensive swing to him.”
Though it would have been nice to win the Norris, McDonagh clearly doesn’t need a trophy to prove his worth.
Check out these statistics, courtesy of Rangers’ PR:
McDonagh has established career-highs in goals (14), assists (29), points (43), power play goals (two), power play assists (11), power play points (13), shorthanded goals (three), shorthanded points (four), game-winning goals (four), and shots on goal (177) this season. He is tied for fifth in the NHL in shorthanded goals, 10th in shorthanded points, is tied for sixth among defensemen in goals and 16th among defensemen in points. He leads the team in average ice time (24:49), is tied for third in plus/minus rating (plus-11) and game-winning goals, ranks fourth in assists, is tied for fourth in power play assists, ranks fifth in points and power play points, and is second in blocked shots (131).
RANGERS PLAYOFF OPENER WILL PROBABLY BE NEXT THURSDAY
Since the New York Knicks are scheduled to play the Toronto Raptors at MSG next Wednesday, the Rangers’ playoff opener at the Garden will likely take place on Thursday, April 17. The Rangers will either host the Flyers or Blue Jackets based upon which team finishes third in the Metropolitan Division.
The Flyers and Blue Jackets each have 91 points through 80 games played. Philadelphia currently is ahead 38 to 37 in the non-shootout wins tiebreaker (ROW).
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey
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