By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Every team that prevails in a best-of-seven playoff series gets a lift from an X-factor player, someone who’s not expected to do something he does under postseason pressure.
Bruins forward Riley Nash has been producing unexpected points and moments for four weeks. He continued to be more important to the Bruins’ cause than anyone had a right to expect in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first round series against Ottawa.
Nash had an assist in his NHL playoff debut, as he set up Frank Vatrano’s game-tying goal in the third period. He played 323 career games, including 242 with Carolina, before reaching the postseason.
But the Bruins’ stretch run toward earning a spot in the playoffs might as well have been an early-starting playoff series. And that’s when Nash raised his game. After he’d had one goal in 20 games, Nash had one goal and one assist in the loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 23 — a loss the Bruins were able to eventually consider their rock bottom. Their six-game winning streak started in their next game, and although goaltender Anton Khudobin got most of the accolades for filling in for the injured Tuukka Rask and playing well, the netminder’s effort would’ve gone for naught had Nash not scored two goals.
Some players rise to the moment, Nash just rarely had the chance when playing for perennial lottery-bound team in Raleigh.
“I’ve been in playoffs in different leagues before, so you kind of need to bear down,” Nash told me a few weeks ago. “You know that every little play matters. It’s kind of like baseball, where in the regular season … everyone doesn’t focus on every pitch, but in the playoffs every pitch matters. So right now every little play matters, whether it be in the offensive zone, being the third guy high, or getting a puck out along the wall, just advancing pucks. You definitely feel the squeeze of the pressure of the games but it’s fun to be a part of.”
Nash finished the season with seven goals and 10 assists in 81 games.
When the Bruins signed Nash as an unrestricted free agent last summer they knew they were getting a bottom-six forward with grit and smarts that might be able to chip in on offense now and then. They also knew that by signing Nash for two years they had someone that could fill their requirement for exposing a veteran forward who’s under contract in the expansion draft. Once the games became crucial, Nash played his way into someone Boston will probably protect from the Vegas Golden Knights’ clutches. There could be even more offense to come as long as coach Bruce Cassidy is around to encourage Nash.
Cassidy likes Nash’s willingness to go to the net and his desire to be a responsible player. Sometimes, though, he wants Nash to be more aggressive at the offensive end.
“I think what happened here … he didn’t want to shoot the puck, he wasn’t scoring, he was getting plenty of chances and inside chances early in the year and they weren’t going in,” Cassidy said. “Then you start wondering ‘what the hell do I have to do to score?’ Then you try to make the perfect shot or wait for the perfect goal when sometimes the easiest way out of it is to just keep firing pucks at the net and hope one goes in eventually.”
Nash can play up and down the lineup, as he showed when he set up Vatrano and also a couple of weeks ago when he set up a David Pastrnak goal. He can play center and wing, and he’s a stalwart on the Bruins’ penalty kill, which led the NHL in efficiency this season. In most ways, Nash is a younger version of 2011 Bruins unsung hero Chris Kelly.
In Game 1 Nash helped extinguish two Ottawa power plays, had one shot on net, threw two hits and blocked two shots. He also did the things that don’t show up in the stats, like back check hard to limit Ottawa’s speed and help protect a one-goal lead late with strong positioning in the defensive zone and crisp clearing passes.
For however long David Krejci is out of the lineup, Nash will be an important fill-in, especially with Cassidy’s propensity for juggling lines. And when Krejci’s back, Nash will have to continue to be that X-factor player who writes his name into team folklore.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.