NEW YORK — When Rick Nash was acquired by the New York Rangers following the 2011-12 season, the team felt it had its game-breaker, a difference-maker that was missing during a 2012 playoff run that fell six victories short of a Stanley Cup.
Nash has become the answer for the Rangers in the playoffs, as long as the question is, “Who is the biggest reason why New York's 2014 postseason will end in the conference semifinals?”
On Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, Nash extended his goalless drought to 11 games. But that wasn’t his biggest crime—a neutral-zone turnover on a pass so irresponsible that it was almost fitting Eli Manning was in the building to witness it led to a go-ahead goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who won 4-2 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
It’s one thing that the Rangers’ pitiful power play ran its drought to 0-of-36; it’s another that Nash’s backhand pass into oblivion during a man advantage late in the second period led to a back-breaking, perhaps season-ending goal by Brandon Sutter. It put the Penguins ahead 2-1 and officially saddled Nash with a scapegoat tag, one that isn’t completely unfair.
“It doesn’t matter what you do during the year,” said Nash, who had 26 goals in 65 regular-season games. “It matters what you do in the playoffs when things count. Obviously I’ve been struggling.”
The sell-out crowd at MSG turned against Nash, booing him during his first touch of the puck during the third period. It was an especially extended booing, as he was in the midst of an end-to-end rush that didn’t result in a goal. Not long after that, the New York fans offered a Bronx cheer when he flipped one of his patented harmless shots on net from about two subway stops from the arena, one that Marc-Andre Fleury easily stopped.
The fans in this building can be fickle, but it is their right to express their displeasure when a player with a $7.8 million cap hit has done so little in so many big situations. Nash has 45 shots in the playoffs but has shown just about the same reluctance to go to the net as a freshly hooked salmon on a weekly fishing expedition.
Both coach Alain Vigneault and Brad Richards said they understood the fans’ frustration, but didn’t appreciate the lack of support in what was still a one-goal, second-round playoff game at home.
“Ultimately, the fans can do what they want,” Vigneault said. “I’d prefer right now if our fans were supportive. It might not look it, but we’re trying our guts off here. We’re trying to put our best game on the ice. We’re trying our best.”
“It upsets everybody in the locker room,” Richards said. “We’re not 15th in the league...We’re in the second round of the playoffs. But that’s my opinion. I understand sports and where it’s all at, so does he, so does everybody in here. But it’s not one person. It’s the whole team. As a team, we didn’t play tonight and for one guy or two guys to get booed or whatever it is, that’s frustrating as a team because we all put our foot in this together tonight.”
Nash sat at his locker and answered every question about his poor game, lack of goals and booing without having his interview session cut short by a public relations person. He acknowledged fans’ right to vent their frustrations: “It’s tough, but you understand where they’re coming from.”
They’re coming from the expectations that were created when he was acquired two years ago, after the Rangers flamed out in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012 when the goals dried up. Marian Gaborik was Rick Nash in New York before Rick Nash was Rick Nash in New York. Gaborik had one goal in the six-game loss to the New Jersey Devils, making the Rangers believe they needed another top-end scorer to take the next step.
Nash was acquired at the expense of depth (Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov), then Gaborik was traded last season in order to recover what was lost (Derick Brassard, John Moore, Derek Dorsett). That left Nash as the focal point of the offense, which was somewhat offset by the acquisition of Martin St. Louis at this year’s trade deadline, although he's been about as effective in this series as a washcloth at stopping a bullet.
While Nash couldn’t drop a puck into the Grand Canyon, Gaborik is tied for the lead among all scorers in the 2014 playoffs with six goals in nine games, including an overtime winner in Game 1 of the second round for the Los Angeles Kings against the Anaheim Ducks.
Meanwhile, Nash has one goal in 23 playoff games with the Rangers.
Goals and assists aren’t everything, but there’s nothing else Nash is bringing to the table right now. He has wonderful possession numbers during these playoffs, as he has been on the ice for 58 percent of his team's five-on-five shot attempts. But most of his shots have been about as dangerous as a stuffed animal and his willingness to pay a price to score a goal has been sporadic at best and nonexistent more often than not.
On his first shift of the game, Nash actually crashed the crease to create a chance. That’s been a rarity in this series, while superstar counterparts Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have driven to the crease on a far more regular basis. Crosby was knocked around in front of the net throughout Game 3, and Malkin scored the first goal of the game Wednesday from that same area.
Nash is spinning and fading away so often that he might get mistaken for Patrick Ewing in this building if this was 1994. It’s one thing to count shots and shot attempts to assess how a player is doing; it’s another to watch what he has done and realize he’s been far too passive.
There was also a moment in Game 4 when he had a open look from about 15 feet but instead opted to pass the puck, which was deflected away by the Penguins defense.
There it was. Nash with a wide-open shot, doesn't shoot.— Rangers Report (@rangersreport) May 8, 2014
There are plenty of other Rangers who haven’t done much in this series. Nash wasn’t the only person who didn’t score a goal against Fleury in Games 2 and 3. Derek Stepan has been treating the puck like a hand grenade, while every defenseman has been overwhelmed by Crosby and Malkin on the same line.
But Nash is the star, the game-changer, the difference-maker—allegedly, anyway.
Game 5 in Pittsburgh on Friday is a crossroads game for Nash; the team got by without him in the first round against the Philadelphia Flyers, but they need a big performance out of him if they want to get this series to a Game 6 and then a Game 7. This is the time when superstars earn their paychecks by scoring, by finishing their chances, not by having a lot of shot attempts and driving possession.
The Rangers offered complete support of and belief in Nash on Wednesday night, although some of the words aren't exactly ringing endorsements.
“Rick’s a human being that’s out there trying his best,” Richards said.
His best? Sean Connery had a great line for Nicolas Cage in The Rock about trying your best that's worth looking up.
“Obviously, he feels a lot of pressure right now,” Vigneault said, “and I got to tell you, he’s battling real hard.”
Isn’t that what Dottie said about her kid sister in A League of Their Own when she knew she was done?
There’s still time for Nash to rewrite his script, and it starts at Consol Energy Center in about 48 hours.
“He’s putting pressure on himself because he knows that’s his job to do so,” Richards said. “We’ve all been through different situations. In here, as a team, we’re 100 percent behind him. This is a tough league. You can’t just go out and score goals because someone says that you have to, because fans say you have to or media says you have to. It’s a lot different than that.
“What a better time for him to get on the road and hopefully, not just him, all of us, just to forget about these two games that couldn’t have went worse.”