By Sean Hartnett
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Rick Nash is a devastating force when he’s on his game. The problem is he hasn’t been on his game in a long time.
The 6-foot-4 winger is capable of supplying the Rangers with two-way excellence, near-immovable puck-controlling ability and scary one-on-one moves. Yet, he remains an enigma.
Many Rangers fans cannot understand why he runs into production outages during the playoffs. This time around, the situation is more dire. Nash is entering the postseason on a cold streak. He finished the regular season pointless in five games. Since the calendar turned to 2016, Nash has scored just three goals in 24 games.
During his injury-plagued 2015-16 regular season, Nash’s shooting percentage fell to 8.2 percent — the lowest of his 13-year career. A deep bone bruise in his left leg interrupted his progress and caused him to miss 20 consecutive games before he returned to the Rangers’ lineup on March 12 in Detroit.
What should be encouraging to fans is Nash hasn’t suffered any physical setbacks since as he has suited up for 15 straight games. With a good chunk of practice time ahead of Wednesday’s series opener against the surging Penguins at Consol Energy Center, Nash will attempt to sharpen his scoring touch.
The 31-year-old may be soft spoken, but there is an internal fire that burns deep. He desperately wants to deliver the goods — and the Rangers are going to need a big series from him if they’re going to move on to the next round.
“I put tons of pressure on myself to perform,” Nash said in late March. “When things don’t go the way you want, it’s frustrating.”
At worst, the big-bodied winger will put in a solid night’s work. Nash will win his share of battles, drive possession and perform reliably on the penalty kill. But for the city of New York to truly embrace No. 61, he needs to serve as a go-to scorer in the pressure-cooker that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“It’s a struggle when you’re not scoring,” Nash said during last season’s Eastern Conference finals. “I think it tests you mentally, it tests you emotionally. But at the end of the day it’s not about you; it’s about the team, and anything you can do to help the team win. If the team’s winning, you’re obviously happy and smiling.”
Last year’s playoffs represented a step forward, given his production of 14 points in 19 games. His 0.74 points per game were just a shade below his regular season average of 0.80. He doubled his shooting percentage from 3.6 percent during the 2014 playoffs to 7.2 percent during the 2015 postseason. Yet, that figure pales in comparison to his 12.3 career regular season shooting percentage.
The time has come for the big man to make the big leap. Perhaps with 60 postseason games under his belt, Nash is ready to unleash his playoff best and erase the perception that he is a playoff underachiever.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey