The New York Rangers have two regular season contests left, but fans are already looking on to the Stanley Cup playoffs. If the Blueshirts win out, they are at the very lease guaranteed the No. 3 spot in the Metropolitan Division and a matchup vs. the Philadelphia Flyers.
Finishing No. 2 would have the same result, but the Blueshirts would benefit from a home-ice advantage. As the Rangers prepare to enter the playoffs, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered. One of the biggest questions involves star winger Rick Nash.
Throughout his 10-year career, Nash has appeared in 16 playoff games during two playoff runs, and he has two goals and six assists to his name for a total of eight points.
Nash was traded to New York in 2012, and fans expected him to be a big-time player in the postseason. Last year he wasn't, and the question on fans' minds at this point is: Will Nash finally have his playoff moment with the Rangers?
How would you grade Nash's 2013-14 season?
Nash has had a tough season and one he likely wants to forget. He's only appeared in 63 games, and he has scored 25 goals. Nash struggled mightily after returning to the lineup after a 17-game absence resulting from a concussion, and it took him time to find his rhythm.
Despite his struggles, he is in a perfect position to go on a tear in the playoffs. With how much time he spent out of the lineup from injury, he will be one of the Rangers' most rested forwards come playoff time, and he is entering the playoffs ready for action.
Nash has been on a cold streak, but the page gets reset once the playoffs start. He's never had big playoff success, but a part of his struggle has been the fact that he's had to be the top threat. He is a top threat, but the composition of the Rangers' roster will help lessen the burden on Nash.
For starters, Nash won't be the guy this postseason. He will be looked upon to be a big-time player, but the team will not live or die on Nash's back. The addition of Martin St. Louis adds another player that opposing teams will need to defend, and that could lead to Nash receiving favorable matchups.
St. Louis hasn't had the greatest of starts in New York, but he broke out with his best game of the season as a Ranger during a 4-1 victory against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Rangers' big trade deadline acquisition tallied three assists, and he was a threat whenever he was on the ice.
St. Louis' play is precisely the reason the pressure won't be solely on Nash, and the play of his pivot Derek Stepan should also help even things out.
Stepan had a rough first half, but he has been a completely different player since returning from the Sochi Games. In his last 21 games, Stepan has tallied 21 points, and he will finish the season with a career high in points and assists.
His uptick in play will certainly help Nash during the playoffs, because Stepan is a threat to shoot or pass, so an indecisive defender could end up getting exploited by the duo of Nash and Stepan.
One of the final reasons Nash should feel less pressure during the playoffs is the play of Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello.
The "PBZ" line has been fantastic this year, and the line's chemistry is off the charts. During Tuesday's matchup vs. the Hurricanes, the line was making moves left and right, and Pouliot was the beneficiary of a sweet pass made by Zuccarello.
Zuccarello is having the greatest season of his career, Brassard is close to matching his career high in points and this has been a renaissance year for Pouliot. The line works well because each player knows where the others are on the ice, and they do a good job supporting each other.
This line is the odds on favorite to be the Blueshirts' top line in the playoffs, and if that's the case, Nash will be squaring off against the second or third defensive pairing. The Rangers are likely to face the Flyers, and Nash should be able to have a field day against Philadelphia’s lesser pairings.
This postseason Nash has to put the puck in the net. If he scores goals, the Rangers will go places. Henrik Lundqvist is in the zone at this point in time, and he will win games for the Rangers if he gets goal support.
Nash has an opportunity to shine this postseason because he has one of the best supporting casts he's ever played with, and there is no reason he shouldn't be successful playing with Stepan and St. Louis.
Only time will tell, but if Nash doesn't play well this postseason, he at the very least should have a better answer for reporters this time around.
Stats via NHL.com.