‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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The play of Rangers winger Rick Nash can swing this series in one direction or the other. Right now, his overall lack of authority and questionable decision making while in possession of the puck are glaring issues.
The Rangers desperately need their star winger to stand up and deliver during the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 20 years.
It’s one thing to get by the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens without consistent contributions from No. 61. The Los Angeles Kings are a different kind of animal, having eliminated Western Conference powerhouses in the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and the 2013 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
The Kings’ 3-2 overtime victory in Game 1 appears to be a sign of things to come. These contests are going to be won by very thin margins. When he’s at his best, Nash can be a game-changer. Right now, he looks like he’s fighting himself.
Over his past five games, Nash has only scored one goal and registered one assist. That’s not cutting it for a player who is blessed with tremendous physical strength, athleticism and quick wrists. The 29-year-old winger has all the tools to flat-out dominate.
Nash cannot be just Mr. November and Mr. January. He needs to flip the switch like clutch Kings winger Justin Williams and become Mr. June. There were moments throughout the Rangers’ Game 1 defeat where Nash could have been the difference. He frustratingly passed up clear shooting opportunities and tried to make flashy moves when he had space to dish off to available teammates.
If only there was a way the Rangers could siphon what Carl Hagelin has flowing inside him and feed it into Nash’s bloodstream. Whereas Nash was woeful in Game 1, Hagelin was brimming with full confidence. The 25-year-old Swede turned on the jets and scored a shorthanded breakaway goal in the first period. Hagelin continued to stretch the Kings’ defense throughout. He led the Rangers with five shots on goal.
Nash does not possess the straightaway speed of Hagelin, but his overall package far exceeds Hagelin and for that matter, the majority of NHL forwards.
Rangers fans know that Nash is capable of producing big things. It’s understandable why they hold him to a high standard. This is an individual who has been a five-time All-Star, captured the “Rocket” Richard Trophy and won two Olympic gold medals with Canada. During this past regular season, Nash led the Blueshirts with nine game-winning goals in 65 games.
To his credit, Nash has made positive contributions throughout the Rangers’ playoff run by being a responsible defensive zone player and valuable penalty killer. Fairly or unfairly, Nash is ultimately judged by how often he lights the lamp. Three goals through 21 playoff games isn’t cutting the mustard.
When Nash forced the Blue Jackets to trade him to New York in the summer of 2012, he knew exactly what he was getting into. Prior to the trade, Nash was a beloved figure in Columbus. He could have easily remained the iconic face of the franchise for years to come.
Instead, Nash opted to further his career by seeking a new challenge. That sort of ambition has to be admired. Leaving the comfort zone of laid-back Columbus for the bright lights and pressures of the Big Apple was a bold move. The onus is squarely on Nash to endear himself to New Yorkers.
Remember when The Garden booed Nash every time he touched the puck in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals? Even a few “We want Dubi” chants were started by a group of fans sitting behind the press box. Should Nash’s offensive struggles continue and the Rangers return to MSG on Monday with an 0-2 series deficit, the boos and chants will again be directed at the man wearing the No. 61 on his back.
Nash has the power to erase all the frustration and silence his critics by having a breakthrough series on the NHL’s biggest stage during the Stanley Cup Final.
It would be unfair to direct the Game 1 blame solely on Nash. Defensive zone miscues by Derek Stepan and Dan Girardi proved costly. Unlike Nash, Girardi and Stepan have secured their place in the hearts of Rangers fans. They’ve watched both players mature over the years and understand their personalities. They know both Stepan and Girardi are all-for-the-cause ironmen. Aside from his play, most Rangers fans know little about the laid-back and reserved Nash.
Nash will remain an enigma and a mystery to Rangers fans until he proves he can carry this team on his back the way that fellow stars Henrik Lundqvist, Martin St. Louis and Ryan McDonagh have throughout the Blueshirts’ 2014 playoff run.
RETURNING JOHN MOORE TO PROVIDE GAME 2 BOOST
Defenseman Raphael Diaz struggled throughout Game 1. As the game went on, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault shortened his bench. Diaz often looked like a liability in his own end. He ended up playing 10:15 of total ice time.
Having served the entirety of his two-game suspension, defenseman John Moore is eligible to play Game 2. Vigneault did not reveal whether Moore would re-enter the lineup Saturday.
“I haven’t talked about lineup decisions here as we move throughout the playoffs and I’m not going to start tonight,” Vigneault said after Game 1.
It’s highly likely that Vigneault will re-insert Moore into his Game 2 lineup in place of Diaz. Moore has averaged 14:06 of total ice time per game during the playoffs. He is superior to Diaz in all aspects and does not play with the fragility seen in Diaz’s game.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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