Rick Nash: "We're Not Happy to Just Be in the Playoffs"

Greg Eno@@GregEnoSenior Analyst IApril 15, 2009

ST. LOUIS, MO. - MARCH 28: Rick Nash #61 of the Columbus Bluejackets celebrates his goal against the St. Louis Blues at the Scottrade Center on March 28, 2009 in St. Louis, Missouri.  The Blues won 4-3 in a shootout.  (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Not that the Red Wings and their admirers needed any reminders, but Rick Nash is nonetheless happy to reaffirm it.

The Columbus Blue Jackets aren’t happy to just be in the playoffs.

“We have the same goal as the other 15 teams,” the Jackets star told us ink-stained wretches during an NHL conference call on Monday. “We’re not happy to just be here (in the playoffs). Now that we’re in, we want to go far.”

Nash has beaten the Red Wings like a drum over the past couple of regular seasons. He’s been, by far, the biggest reason (physically and otherwise) why the Jackets haven’t been a pushover for the Red Wings.

Now the Red Wings will have to deal with Nash and his teammates over the next week or so as they begin their Stanley Cup defense against Columbus in Round One.

Nash acknowledged that he’s scored some goals against the Red Wings lately. He had six against them in six games this season.

“I’ve had some success against them in the past, but those [regular season games] don’t matter anymore.”

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The Wings had better hope not!

If Nash continues to mesmerize the fellows wearing the Winged Wheel, especially goalie Chris Osgood, this series might have “upset” written all over it.

It’s not like Red Wings fans aren’t used to those kinds of ghoulish thoughts heading into the first round.

But if it makes them feel any better, I’ll let you in on something.

Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock has no idea what to expect because he’s never been in this position before.

“This is all new to me,” Hitchcock said when I asked him what it’s like coaching an underdog in the playoffs. “I’m not really sure what to expect. Seems like forever I’ve been coaching teams with all the pressure on them. Now, to have no pressure...maybe it works to our advantage. But this is new to me.”

Hitchcock, don’t forget, coached the Dallas Stars to the 1999 Stanley Cup.

Speaking of first round upsets, Hitchcock said something else that might make Wings fans breathe a little easier.

I asked him if he subscribes to the theory that defending Stanley Cup champs are more vulnerable to being upset in the first round as opposed to in later rounds.

“No, I don’t subscribe to that theory at all,” Hitchcock told me. “I think the defending team is just as excited in the first round as they are in the later rounds. I think that if they lose, it’s because of the accumulation of all the wear and tear from the regular season and the playoffs, being the target.”

Both Nash and his coach talked about excitement—as in, the kind felt by the Jackets and their city, which Nash said is “very excited.”

“I think we have a lot of players who are awfully excited to be playing hockey at this time of year,” Hitchcock said.

“The fans are going to be crazy,” Nash added.

Prior to Hitchcock arriving in Columbus in November 2006, Nash was a good player who was considered strictly an offensive threat and not much else.

“I was a 12, 13-minute guy,” Nash said of life pre-"Hitch." “I didn’t kill any penalties. If we were up by a goal late in the game, I knew I wasn’t going to see any ice.”

But Hitchcock looked at Nash and saw something else: a complete hockey player—one who could, and should, be a team leader. And the only way to do that, Hitchcock told Nash, is to do it all.

“He wanted me to be one of the best players in the league, on both ends of the ice,” Nash said of his coach.

Mission accomplished. The Jackets now use Nash’s size (6′4″, 218) defensively as well as in the attacking zone.

The Red Wings won the Cup last year largely because, in each round, they were able to bottle up the opposing team’s big guns. Their job on Sidney Crosby in the Finals was as close to a masterpiece as you’re going to see.

I put it to Nash: How might you handle it if the goals don’t come as easily against the Red Wings in the playoffs as they have in the regular season?

“I try not to get too high or too low. I’ve been on streaks where I don’t score for eight, nine games,” he said. “But if that happens, maybe I can make some nice passes, kill some penalties, make some good defensive plays.

“This the playoffs. Everyone needs to chip in.”

So true. But if Nash finds himself in an eight, nine-game goal-scoring slump during a seven-game series...well, it doesn’t take a mathematician to see why that’s a bad thing for Columbus.

Like so many Red Wings opponents in the playoffs—especially in the first round—the Jackets will try to rely on defense to win.

“We’re gonna have our hands full. They’re a great team,” Nash says of the Red Wings. “We can’t fall into their style. They’re the most skilled team in the league. We need to play our style—defensive. That’s the only way we’re going to have a chance in this series.”

Defense, shmefense. Nash has to score a little bit, or the Jackets will be removed.

The playoff rookie Nash, and the newly-underdog coach Hitchcock, will realize that soon enough.