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“How could a player who produces with what seems to be such ease in the regular season fail to put up points in the playoffs?”
After the past few playoff failures, Rangers fans have found themselves asking that question repeatedly regarding Rick Nash, who is supposed to be their top offensive threat. Many fans pointed to his massive $7.8 million cap hit and his playoff production to point out a gap in value. Anecdotally, I referred to him as a “$7.8 million Jesper Fast” because he proved to be a defensive savant but only found his name on the scoresheet occasionally.
Since his first foray into playoffs hockey, the questions regarding Nash’s “extra gear” have been there. Can he find that “next level?” Can he translate his Rocket Richard Trophy caliber production to game 83 and beyond? Can he be the difference maker, scoring timely goals to shift the tide of a playoff series? For his first few playoff series across several seasons, the answer to all of those questions was a resounding “No.” Nash struggled to extend his scoring prowess to the postseason, something that has put him under the fans’ microscopes.
Some pointed to injuries, some pointed to an unwillingness to go to the “dirty areas” of the ice, and some even pointed to a shift in his overall style of play – moving from a high-scoring power forward to more of a defensively responsible winger with goal scoring as a secondary objective. Some of these reasons had varying levels of accuracy. That’s all water under the bridge now, however, because as his playoff career has gone on with the New York Rangers, Rick Nash has found a way to break out of his funk and contribute on both sides of the puck.
You probably heard this mentioned during Rangers broadcasts throughout the first round against Montreal – Nash has 14 points in his last 15 playoff games. This stat will shock Nash detractors and it dates back to Game 4 against Tampa in 2014-2015 when he notched two goals and an assist, an effort which he then followed up with in Game 6 to the tune of one goal and three assists.
Ever since that series, over the last two playoff runs he has been a part of, it has been steady as she goes. He hasn’t had another multi-point outburst like he did in that Tampa series, but he has steadily produced to the tune of four goals and three assists over 11 playoff games. This rate of production is only slightly below his career average of goals per game (.42) and assists per game (.36) in the regular season, which is all that can really be asked of a player during the playoffs, especially when Nash brings what he brings to the defensive side of the puck.
One main factor in his improved postseason play is his willingness to go to “dirty areas” of the ice. Typically, “dirty areas” is defined as the rectilinear space on the ice that borders the outer edges of the faceoff circles in the offensive zone. The green box in the figure below depicts this.
In his previous playoff appearances, Nash was infamous for his lack of willingness to make a difficult play. He resembled more of a basketball player in that he would take the puck into the offensive zone, reach the top of the faceoff circle, and sort of “post up” by turning his body to the defender (and the net) to make a pass backwards or make a weak play towards the net.
Now, however, Nash has figured out a way to use both his superior size and “hockey sense” to generate scoring chances, particularly in the series against Montreal.
In this play, Nash finds himself in open space and receives a great shovel pass from Jimmy Vesey who won a puck battle along the boards. Nash then carries the puck out from behind the net and fends off two defenders to put a shot off Price’s pads.
Nash elects to take the puck to a dangerous area of the ice instead of passing it off or taking a weak shot from beside the net and it leads to Brady Skjei scoring a key goal off the rebound. This type of decision making is what was missing from Nash’s play in previous years. More importantly, this type of decision making will lead to more production in the long run and will be a boon to the Rangers’ playoff success.
Another area where Nash has improved has been in finding space behind defenders in the offensive zone. In previous years, it seemed Nash had to fight his way through the opposing team for offensive chances. That is ordinarily how offense is generated in the NHL playoffs. However, against Montreal, Nash exhibited a knack for finding an opening behind the defense several times.
Going forward into the second round matchup vs. the Ottawa Senators, these types of plays must continue if the Rangers wish to extend their season into June. The Blueshirts will be facing an Ottawa team with a strong defensive strategy that stifles play through the neutral zone– reminiscent of the neutral zone trap that was popular in the 1990s and early 2000s. This is detailed fantastically in Phil Kocher’s primer of the Rangers’ series with the Ottawa Senators. Nash’s line, along with Derek Stepan and Jimmy Vesey must find a way to weave through the holes in Ottawa’s defense and pressure Craig Anderson.
Nash is an incredibly cerebral player who possesses a rare combination of size and skill that allows him to score goals that other players simply cannot. His game has evolved over his career to become more defensively responsible, but that has accompanied a seeming lack of ability to produce in the playoffs. Recently, though, Nash has further evolved to utilize his unique skills and contribute offensively in the playoffs. As long as he continues to prove the doubters wrong, the Rangers’ fortunes for winning the Stanley Cup will rise.