By Sean Hartnett
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Rick Nash is an easy target. That will happen when you’ve scored only five goals in 45 playoff games with the New York Rangers.
Just like last postseason, everyone is getting on No. 61’s back. With the Rangers shut out 1-0 in Game 3 and behind Washington 2-1 in the series, the “Nasher Bashers” are out in full force.
But he’s passing the eye test. The effort is certainly there. Nash is playing an energetic two-way game. He’s active, engaged, winning pucks, excelling on the penalty kill – both defensively and in quickly transitioning to offense. Nash is using his body to get into prime scoring areas, working screens in front to block the vision of Capitals goalie Braden Holtby. He’s pretty much doing everything for the cause.
Nash was dominant in Game 3. He registered 15 shot attempts and seven shots on goal. From the start, he was engaged physically. Nash laid a big hit on Joel Ward in the first period. He would later clobber Brooks Orpik with a booming hit during the third period that left the 6-foot-2 Capitals defenseman woozy. Nash is doing everything right. He just isn’t scoring.
“He worked real hard,” head coach Alain Vigneault said after the Game 3 loss. “He backchecked like he’s been doing since the beginning. He gave us a great effort. We’re gonna need a better one here come next game.”
Fans need to begin appreciating Nash’s all-around game. He leads the Rangers in assists (4), shots on goal (32), takeaways (9) and is tied for the team lead with five playoff points.
Still, many analysts, including NBC’s Mike Milbury, are bashing Nash like a pinata. During the second intermission of Game 1, Milbury launched into attack mode.
“He has to get it going,” Milbury said. “He has been marshmallow soft through the first two periods. You can’t compete for the Stanley Cup if you are going to play inside your comfort level every game and Nash doesn’t seem to want to leave his comfort level.”
As NBC cut to commercial, Milbury barked: “Show me something for crying out loud.”
Nash responded in Game 2. The 6-foot-4 winger played an instrumental role in Dan Boyle’s power play goal by effectively screening Holtby by moving side to side and taking away the goaltender’s vision.
“I think he’s playing great right now,” alternate captain Dan Girardi said afterward. “He’s using his body, taking pucks to the net, and ‘D’ with him. Someone’s gotta occupy him every time he goes in front of net. That creates a good screen for us.”
Nash’s 32 shots is fourth-highest among NHL skaters this playoffs. Eventually, his luck is going to change for the better.
That being said, it’s mystifying how his shooting percentage takes such a drastic dip during the playoffs. Nash shot 13.8 percent during the regular season, when he scored a career-high 42 goals. Through eight playoff games, his percentage has fallen to 3.1 percent. Over his career, Nash shoots 12.5 percent during the regular season and 3.5 percent during the playoffs.
But the past is the past. Lately, Nash is doing everything right. If he continues performing the way he has, the goals will come.
Follow Sean on Twitter – @HartnettHockey.