By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Seeing the result of Celtics star Gordon Hayward’s fractured ankle this fall caused Bruins forward Riley Nash to have a flashback.
Nash suffered a spiral fracture his right tibia (shinbone) during a minor hockey tournament in Vancouver when he was around 10 years old. Nash and Hayward’s breaks were in different places, but the post-injury pictures were similar in that they both depicted leg bones broken and twisted the wrong way.
“When I saw the picture of his foot, I was like that was exactly how mine was,” Nash recently told me. “I looked down at my foot. I thought I had sprained my ankle. When you’re that age, pain is pain. It hurt a lot but I tried to skate off and I looked down at my foot and it was at a 45-degree angle. I thought ‘Oh, that’s probably not going to work anymore.’”
The injury required six months of recovery, a period Nash called one of the toughest of his life. Now 28, Nash still carries a remembrance of the injury with him — nine screws that are still in his leg.
It should surprise no one who has watched Nash this year help the Bruins overcome more than 100 man games lost to injury — including absences of vital forwards Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and David Backes — that the Alberta native was able to achieve his dream of reaching the NHL despite that severe injury setback from his youth.
“I was fortunate that it didn’t stunt any of my plates or anything like that. At 10, 11 years old, that could be a really debilitating injury,” Nash said. “Other than minor tweaks here or there, minor pains, it’s been pretty good. Knock on wood it hasn’t come back.”
Nash is the type of versatile, hard-nosed player coaches love. That’s the attitude and style of play that got him to the NHL. And he’s never been more important to a NHL team than this season while the Bruins have suffered a rash of debilitating injuries. Despite missing so many key players in different combinations, the Bruins have stayed in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Nash is one of seven Bruins to play all 24 games. He’s averaging 15:32 of ice time, winning 50 percent of his faceoffs and is third among Bruins forwards in shorthanded ice time (behind Marchand and Tim Schaller) for the league’s fourth-ranked penalty kill. He has a 50.94 Corsi For percentage overall and a 50 percent Corsi For when the Bruins are ahead (when teams are throwing the kitchen sink at them while attempting a comeback).
When Krejci was out of the lineup against the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning last Wednesday, the Bruins leaned on Nash for 17:10 of ice time in a 3-2 upset victory.
Although Nash has just two goals, he’s maintained a high level of play in every area of the game to make him indispensable to the Bruins.
“There’s always going to be little lapses here or there, but I feel like I’m playing pretty strong hockey right now,” Nash said. “I feel good out there. I think that the more comfortable you feel, the better you’re going to play.”
Nash wants to contribute more at the offensive end. He has just the two goals, but he had a three-game point streak until the Bruins’ win in Philadelphia on Saturday. Like many players of his ilk around the league, Nash has been snake-bit. He hit the post in the shootout at New Jersey last month. Earlier in November, Anaheim goaltender John Gibson made an athletic glove save that may have been the play of the month. Nash cares equally about all parts of his game and the missed scoring chances are etched on his brain.
“Some of them are goalies, some of them are me,” Nash said. “There’s certain parts of the net you should shoot at when you have an opportunity like that. I think the Gibson one, if I had gotten it up just under the bar a little bit better, I think it would’ve gone in. He obviously made a pretty athletic save. I checked my social media feeds after that game and I was reminded of it quite frequently.”
Nash didn’t miss his chance when he scored on a wrist shot on the rush against the Lightning. Those types of plays make Nash more valuable to the Bruins and encourage Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy to use Nash in more situations where the Bruins need a two-way player, not just a defensive stopper.
Moving forward, Cassidy hopes to cajole more of an attacking attitude out of Nash.
“The defensive player, still when we have the puck, you have to say ‘hey, let’s turn the switch to offense.’ I think that’s what we’re trying to encourage Riley to do,” Cassidy said. “He’s got a good shot. … He can make some plays, he gets chances around the net. So we’re encouraging him to do whatever it takes to finish. Sometimes that’s shooting more, sometimes that’s hanging in there for the second whack, not worrying about once the puck’s in there ‘well I’ve got to be the high forward, I’m the center, get back.’”
As the Bruins get healthier Nash’s ice time may decrease. But nothing will diminish his dedication that helped him overcome his childhood injury. Regardless of whether he overcomes his disinclination toward offense, Nash will continue to be vital member of the Bruins in whatever role Cassidy casts him.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter@MattKalman.