By Sean Hartnett
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Rangers alternate captain Rick Nash has seen far too much with his veteran eyes to worry about the fickle nature of puck luck.
A goal scorer’s life is often filled with peaks and valleys. When you’re hot, everything you touch seems to end up in the back of the net. But when you’re cold, the most precisely guided shots ring iron and the goal line can feel like an impenetrable force field.
Nash’s tough breaks in Tuesday’s 5-4 defeat to the Florida Panthers were a microcosm of a season in which the 33-year-old has seldom received the rub of the green. He tested Panthers netminder James Reimer with four shots on goal and managed seven shot attempts, but had nothing to show for them.
Reimer denied Nash three times in the first period with quality saves. First, he stymied a superb wraparound effort. Later, he gloved a heavy shot on the power play. And with 12 seconds left in the period, he smothered a power-play backhander.
As the Rangers chased a 3-1 deficit in the second period, Kevin Hayes lifted a pass to the far post. Sensing this, Nash made a windmill deke over Florida defenseman Mike Matheson’s body to position his stick to muster a faint, albeit difficult-to-execute shot on goal that was denied by Reimer’s left pad.
After two of Nash’s shots were blocked in the third period, the 6-foot-4 wing had a chance to tie the game near the period’s midway point. His tough-angle wrist shot froze Reimer – but he was greeted with the ping of the iron rather than the roaring sound of the goal horn. It was that kind of night for No. 61.
“I just think last game I could have had two or three goals, and other games I feel like my numbers aren’t as high as they could be,” Nash told WFAN.com. “It’s disappointing that the numbers aren’t there, but I feel my game’s good. I feel like my chances are there. I’m feeling good on special teams, penalty kill and on the power play. I think the points and the goals will come if I stick to it.”
Through 25 games played, Nash’s 0.52 points per game are the lowest of his 15-year career. His 8.9 shooting percentage is well below his 12.2 lifetime average and is the second worst of his career.
“You always look at your points. You always know your numbers,” Nash said. “I like to watch my shooting percentage. I try to get five or six shots a night. If you look at the top guys, they’re usually around 12 to 15 percent (shooting). If you get five or six shots a night, it seems like you should get one goal in those five or six shots. I look at those numbers, and you can kind of judge (a player) on that.”
Nash has made an effort to position himself in prime scoring areas. The old adage is “if you get to the net, you’re going to score goals.” Nash is following the motto to a tee.
“I always find you want to change certain things when the pucks aren’t going in,” Nash said. “One thing I try to change is that I try to play on the inside a bit more, inside the faceoff dots, try to get to the net. Those are little things that I’ll tweak in my game if the pucks aren’t going in. Lately, the chances have been there, and that’s the important thing.
“Every team kind of plays the same way defensively – all five guys collapse down,” he continued. “So, if you’re just on the outside, not much is going to happen. If you watch the highlights every night, a lot of goals come from right in front of the net. So you want to try to get to the net, try to get traffic, try to play in front of the goalie.”
Goals tend to come in bunches for any scoring forward. Nash has gone six games without one, but prior to that he rolled off a three-game goal streak, notching four scores over the span.
“In my estimation, he’s a great 200-foot player,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “Right now, he’s getting a lot of looks. Nasher is a little bit streaky now and then. But one thing that’s not streaky with Nasher is his work ethic and his preparation and how he comes to play and how he’s respected by the team. I’m confident that these looks that he’s getting now – he’s going to continue to get them and he’s going to cash in on a few more, and that’s going to help the team.”
Who isn’t a streaky scorer besides the likes of a select few including Alex Ovechkin, Nikita Kucherov and John Tavares? Goals tend to come from solid habits and a little bit of luck. Eventually, luck tends to even out over the course of a season.
The eye test points to Nash being an effective forward on both ends of the rink, and his luck is bound to change for the better.
ZIBANEJAD OUT INDEFINITELY, MCDONAGH PROBABLE
The Rangers announced Thursday morning that center Mika Zibanejad is experiencing concussion symptoms. Vigneault mentioned that Zibanejad was injured on a hit by Detroit Red Wings forward Darren Helm late in last Friday’s 2-1 victory. Symptoms did not appear until Tuesday’s morning skate, and the 24-year-old Swede was a late scratch after taking part in warmups prior to Tuesday’s game against Florida.
Zibanejad is out indefinitely and will follow the NHL’s concussion protocol until he’s cleared to return to action. Vigneault said the Rangers will not immediately call up a forward from minor-league Hartford, but the Rangers did acquire 26-year-old center Peter Holland from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for right wing Adam Cracknell.
There was positive injury news in the form of Ryan McDonagh being very close to returning. McDonagh has missed four consecutive games due to a strained abdominal muscle. Vigneault indicated Thursday that the Rangers’ captain “was feeling the best he’s felt in a long time. Hopefully, it continues and he’s good to go tomorrow.”
If all goes well, McDonagh should be able to dress for Friday’s home game against the Carolina Hurricances.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey