By Sean Hartnett
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There are undoubtedly some things the Rangers have to fix during the final eight games before the playoffs.
The Blueshirts have lost four of their last five overall, and with their 3-2 defeat to the rival Islanders on Wednesday have now dropped their last seven at Madison Square Garden.
If you’re looking for a more in-depth look at some of this team’s problem, turn to Wednesday’s column. Remember, a lot can change the rest of the way and the playoffs offer a totally clean slate for any team that is fortunate enough to qualify. For this piece, let’s focus on a big positive — a fit and firing Rick Nash.
Throughout his five years in New York, the 32-year-old power forward has received tough grades from fans. I’ve always maintained the opinion that criticisms of Nash have been a little too harsh and that his naysayers have not taken a close enough look at his ability to drive the offense and the overall effectiveness he brings across three zones.
Nash had recently run into a rough patch, as his points per game dipped to 0.57, the lowest since his rookie campaign of 2002-03. One would expect Nash to be closer to his 0.78 career average, but as anyone who loves this sport can tell you, hockey is a game of streaks.
Right now, the version of Nash I’m observing is one who is stoking his flames in time for the playoffs. What we’ve seen is a player making long-distance carries, where he separates himself from multiple defenders to go one-on-one against goalies, and in other cases using that big 6-foot-4 frame to fight his way to prime real estate.
“He’s been one of our best two-way players here for the past little while,” head coach Alain Vigneault said Wednesday. “Not only is he making skilled plays, but he’s also going to those tough areas and he’s being a real power forward like we need him to be. He played a real good game tonight.”
Nash snapped a nine-game goal drought on Tuesday when he scored on the power play against the Devils at Prudential Center. The version of Nash we’re seeing presently is the one who can drive the bus and push this team on to greater things.
Nash lit the lamp again Wednesday against the Islanders, thanks to a phenomenal solo effort. Oscar Lindberg banked a clearing attempt off the defensive zone boards to a streaking Nash, who corralled the puck and then turned Islanders defenseman Thomas Hickey inside-out on his way to beating goaltender Thomas Griess while falling.
“Rick has always been a guy that is an elite scorer and he always seems to get to the scoring areas,” alternate captain Derek Stepan said. “He’s a big part of our offense. We’re going to need him to continue to carry the puck like he has the last few games and carry the pace.”
Nash’s playoff contributions have often been a hotly-debated topic in this city. You get the kind of fans who soak up the fiery opinions of the Mike Milburys of the world and others, who on closer inspection, recognize Nash as the game-changer he is and always has been. When Milbury ripped Nash during the 2015 playoffs by deriding him as “marshmallow soft,” that condemnation stuck with a lot of the big forward’s detractors.
But it was an opinion that was neither fair nor accurate. What gets lost in the shuffle is that Nash has improved in each of the past three postseasons:
2014: 3 goals, 10 points in 25 games — 0.40 P/GP
2015: 5 goals, 9 A, 14 points in 19 games — 0.74 P/GP
2016: 2 goals, 4 points in 5 games — 0.80 P/GP
The 2016-17 Rangers possess the strongest four-line scoring depth the team has had since Nash arrived in the summer of 2012. Vigneault has groupings filled with skilled players at his disposal. This uncommon assemblage of scoring depth is capable of causing all kinds of matchup problems for opponents, and should be a real factor come the playoffs.
In past postseasons, opponents could really key-in on shutting down Nash’s line. Now, the Rangers can roll four lines and dictate offensive zone time and wear down opponents. Opposing coaches aren’t going to need to curtail the strengths of five or six forwards; they are going to need to find a way to keep all 12 quiet.
Once the Rangers hit Lord Stanley’s tournament, there is going to be less onus on Nash to be the focal point. That pressure is going to be shared fairly evenly.
But Nash has shown of late he’s about ready to explode.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey