By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Riley Nash recently revealed that one way his Bruins teammates often teased him was by calling him Rick Nash.
Now the joke’s up because Rick Nash is wearing a Bruins sweater, and because Riley Nash has become a prolific scorer capable of temporarily filling in for the injured Patrice Bergeron without Boston missing a beat.
The 28-year-old Riley Nash, who was a first-round pick (21st overall) of the Edmonton Oilers in 2007, has met every challenge placed in front of him this season, including plugging in between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak while Bergeron recovers from a fractured foot. Nash has eight points (three goals, five assists) in seven games and the Bruins are 6-1-0 since Bergeron went out of the lineup heading into Tuesday night’s game at Carolina.
Nash has already set career-highs for goals (13), assists (23) and points (36) in 66 games.
Some of the challenges Nash has met were made by coach Bruce Cassidy and his staff. Others Nash wrote down early this season.
“I wrote a couple goals down, what a good season would be for me. I think one of them coming into this year was finishing a lot more,” Nash told CBS Boston last week. “Last year I thought I had quite a few chances and I just didn’t quite bear down. Some of it is puck luck and some of it is confidence, and once you get on a roll you kind of take your brain out of it and you kind of revert back to what you’ve been doing your whole life and it just comes a little more naturally.”
The list didn’t end there. Nash also wrote down that he wanted to make sure to stay on an even keel and “ride the high and don’t be sulking in the low.” And on a related note he wanted to make sure his slumps, when they came, wouldn’t last very long.
“One of the things I wrote down was ‘not get frustrated but get determined,’” he recalled.
He scored one goal in the first 22 games this season, and then went 10 games without a goal. But the second half of this season has seen Nash’s list come to life and he hasn’t gone more than two games without a point since early February.
When Nash joined the Bruins from the Hurricanes on a two-year contract as unrestricted free agent July 1, 2016, it wasn’t seen as much more than a depth move. Nash had only briefly been cast in vital offensive roles and hadn’t found the consistency he was still chasing entering this season.
Cassidy, however, believes everyone in the forward group should play with some level of a scorer’s mentality. That’s why when Nash isn’t playing with Marchand and Pastrnak but playing in his usual third-line spot between Danton Heinen and David Backes, he’s not asked to just be a checking center. The third line had stretches earlier this season when it was carrying Boston’s offense and will be a factor in how far this Bruins go in the upcoming postseason.
Nash always believed he had more to offense to offer and with an organization that shared in that belief, he’s flourished because he’s been able to conquer the mental hurdles that come with any season.
“I’ve always went through stretches where I could put up points somewhat consistently, be a guy that can be a supplemental scorer,” he said. “It’s just been a matter of being more consistent with it throughout the whole season. I think this year, so far I’ve done a pretty good job of that without getting too high when you have a good game, not getting too beat up when you have a bad game.”
It’s a credit to Nash that, like Bergeron, he’s picked up his offensive production while not losing any of his defensive game. He’s still a key penalty killer and a player Cassidy relies on to win a crucial draw or be on the ice to protect a late-game lead.
There have been worries among the Bruins fan base that Nash’s breakout season is pricing him out of Boston’s range for when he becomes a free agent again this July. Indications are he loves the situation he’s in with the Bruins and is grateful for the opportunities he’s been granted and taken advantage of. Although there are more prospects on the way, the Bruins are going to need veterans that can help them get acclimated while still producing. And the Bruins know the value of depth based on the injuries they’ve suffered and overcome throughout this season. There could be enough common ground between the two sides to continue Nash’s prime years in Boston.
A lot will be determined by how the stretch run and playoffs go. With Rick around, Riley won’t have to worry about being the Nash garnering the most media and opponent attention.
“I’m all right. I’ll slide under the radar any day,” Riley Nash said.
That radar, however, may be more difficult for Nash to avoid if his game continues to blossom the way it has this season.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.