By Sean Hartnett
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It’s time to bury the tired and inaccurate narrative surrounding Rangers winger Rick Nash.
For too long, Nash has been labeled as a soft, overpaid forward who disappears in the playoffs.
I need to remind those people that big players step up on big occasions. Nash was the catalyst in the Rangers’ 2-1 win over the Canadiens in Game 4 on Tuesday night that evened the first-round series. He consistently got to the blue paint and provided maximum effort across 200 feet of ice throughout his 16:31 of ice time.
“He’s a difference-maker,” center Mika Zibanejad said of Nash. “He’s a big part of our team and a top-of-the-league player. It’s fun to see as a teammate. I think him and also, the whole team really stepped up today. We got the job done.”
Nash notched the game-winning goal at 4:28 of the second period. He motored his way to the crease and connected on a feed from captain Ryan McDonagh, using the long reach that comes with his 6-foot-4 frame to sneak the puck past Montreal goalie Carey Price.
“It was a great play by Ryan McDonagh to find me going to the net,” Nash said. “I was trying to go to the net all night and trying to cause some chaos.”
Price admitted he was surprised to see the hulking Nash stationed where he was.
“I didn’t know he was there, to be honest,” Price said. “It was a quick point shot. I didn’t quite get set on the post the way I wanted to. I thought he was going to walk out front.”
Chaos is the right word for Nash’s game when he consistently gets his body to high-traffic areas. He took away Price’s vision with effective screens in Game 4. He was penalized at 14:21 of first period for trucking Price during a New York power play. Nash burned defenseman Jeff Petry to the outside, then went full bore on the crease to make a backhand attempt. However, he plowed over Price. Kevin Hayes jammed in the loose puck, but the goal was immediately waved off and Nash was sent to the box.
“I don’t blame him,” Price said of the collision.
Nash demanded the puck on his stick and played straight-line hockey all night. He sparked the Rangers, who had looked tentative and unorganized during Sunday’s 3-1 loss in Game 3 at MSG. The re-energized Rangers outshot Montreal 32-24 in Game 4 and out-attempted the Habs, 66-50.
Nash left a lasting impression on everyone.
“He was a beast out there,” defenseman Brady Skjei said. “He was kind of a man among boys. He definitely showed he’s an experienced guy. He made the right play when it was there and was key to get that goal for us.”
“(Nash) played huge for us tonight, right off the start,” alternate captain Dan Girardi added. “He’s bringing pucks to the net, going to the hard places and making big plays for us. He was unfortunate with the goalie interference there. Obviously, the game-winning goal was huge. He was a real leader for us out there tonight.”
Those who criticize Nash for pulling a disappearing act at this time of season couldn’t be more wrong. Nash has recorded 13 points, including seven goals, in his last 13 playoff games. It was clear in Game 4 that he was doing everything possible to get teammates to emulate his commitment across three zones. He wears the alternate captain’s badge for a reason; it’s because the forward group follows his lead.
Throughout Tuesday’s win, the Rangers struck the right balance between taking chances and being responsible in their own end. Head coach Alain Vigneault should also get high marks for his reconfigured forward lines. He opted to dress his best 12 forwards, scratched rugged winger Tanner Glass and inserted rookie winger Pavel Buchnevich in the lineup for his playoff debut.
“He seemed real good before the game. He seemed to be in a good space,” Vigneault said of Buchnevich. “I thought he went out on the ice and played a good game. He made some good plays with the puck. That line had some good zone time and they used their speed and their skill.”
Vigneault spread the scoring wealth evenly across four lines: Chris Kreider-Zibanejad-Buchnevich, Jimmy Vesey-Derek Stepan-Nash, J.T. Miller-Hayes-Mats Zuccarello, Michael Grabner-Oscar Lindberg-Jesper Fast.
Though Glass provided effective physicality over the first three games of the series, the Rangers looked like the version of themselves that caused all kinds of matchup problems for opponents early in the season. They used four speedy and skilled lines and established offensive zone time.
“For me, tonight, it was important to play at a high pace,” Vigneault said. “To do that, I believe you have to be able to roll four lines.”
The Rangers looked like an entirely different team than in their previous series defeats. They attacked, they initiated and put the Habs on their heels.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey