By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Six-foot-4, 211-pound Rick Nash can’t hide.
His game is based on going to the front of the net or into the corner and daring opponents to stop him. He thrives on contact and battling, and puts the power in power forward, as they say.
Off the ice, he doesn’t shy away from his fan- and media-generated reputation. He knows that when he came to Boston in the Feb. 25 trade with the New York Rangers, he brought with him his 200-foot game, his tough-to-control size and a past filled with unmet postseason production expectations.
He knows his 15 goals in 77 playoff games tells those that maybe haven’t watched the games as closely or dug into his numbers that he might wither under postseason pressure. Assuming Nash’s recovery from a concussion stays on track, he’ll start the next chapter of his postseason career against Toronto in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first round on Thursday.
“It’s there,” Nash recently replied to a CBS Boston question about living down his postseason stat line. “But I think the last postseason was one of my best, obviously. I feel like the Montreal series, I dominated it and the Ottawa one was a tough series but I had my chances. It’s a new season once the playoffs start. Expectations are high and you’ve got to try to do your best to do it.”
If you don’t believe Nash has been better in the playoffs than the numbers tell you, ask someone who battled all the way through to the disappointing Game 5 of the 2014 Stanley Cup final and Game 7 of the 2015 Eastern Conference finals with Nash.
Nash didn’t have a point in the 2014 Finals, despite landing 18 shots on net. He finished that playoff run with 10 points (three goals, seven assists) and 83 shots on net in 25 games. The next season, Nash had 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 19 playoff games. He landed 69 shots on net.
But every deep playoff run requires contributions of all sorts from a wide array of sources, and Nash didn’t let his Rangers teammates down.
“I think it does get overlooked,” Nash’s Rangers teammate and future Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis told CBS Boston during a phone call. “Sometimes some of the things that he does may not be clear to the typical fan, media or whatever. There’s a lot of subtle things he does, intangibles that he does bring.
“One thing I’ll give him credit, if he doesn’t find himself on the score sheet, he doesn’t really change the way that he plays. He’s not starting to cheat … which is something that as players you can respect, just stay on course and play tough defensive hockey regardless of whether he’s scoring or not scoring. I think that’s why he’s such a good [fit] for playoff hockey, it’s kind of a defensive grind at times.”
Nash hasn’t let the unmet expectations of the Rangers’ glory years change him, even if the sting of that loss and his lack of production hasn’t waned. He still thinks about it (at least when asked), but as a lifelong sniper he accepts that slumps come and go, and there are other ways to help a championship-caliber team when not scoring
“I wish I could explain it. Sometimes the puck doesn’t go in,” Nash said. “I think about Game 5 there [against the Kings in 2014], I had a wide-open net and I hit the one-timer and it hits the guy’s shaft that’s that thick. It’s the way hockey is, it’s a game of inches and it’s a game that sometimes the puck goes in and sometimes it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t go in, you try and help the team in other ways.”
The Rangers went out in five games to Pittsburgh in the first round in 2016; he had two goals and two assists. Then last spring he found his postseason groove. He had two goals and one assist for the New York Rangers in a six-game win against Montreal. He fired 23 shots on net, including eight in Game 5 (he had one assist that night). Although his Corsi For percentage (43.8) didn’t reflect the same level of dominance, he started in zones other than the offensive zone 57 percent of the time against the Canadiens, who were the third-best Corsi team in the NHL in the regular season.
In a six-game loss to Ottawa, he had one goal and one assist with 21 shots on net. The Senators played a little looser and he was able to post a 51.3 Corsi despite still starting in the offensive zone less than half the time (48.7).
Although St. Louis retired after the 2015 playoffs, he still closely follows the league. He gave the Bruins high marks for their acquisition of Nash, especially since he was added to a hard-to-play-against core of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Krejci (who were key in defeating St. Louis’ Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals).
In his brief stint with the Bruins before he was injured, Nash taught observers what a force he could be at both ends of the rink, not just on the attack. St. Louis expects the Bruins will benefit from more of that in the playoffs.
“Rick is a really good two-way player, especially in the postseason,” St. Louis said. “He’s a tremendous penalty killer, a great net-front guy offensively, and off the rush. You let him loose, he can be dangerous. He rarely turns the puck over, he manages the puck really well. For me at least, his game really fits the playoff style.
“Of course, sure, everybody wants to score, but I think Rick was really able to contribute, especially the minutes he gets.”
It’s easy to forget that Milan Lucic didn’t score and Brad Marchand had one goal for the Bruins in their opening series against Montreal in 2011. Both players are looked at fondly for their contributions to the Cup championship because eventually they broke through. While others were carrying the load, they made sure to do the little things to keep the Bruins rolling. Postseason production can be affected by match-ups, injuries and bounces. Will and determination are just as important, if not more vital, for individuals trying to contribute to a Cup winner.
The Bruins saved Nash from the Rangers’ sinking ship in hopes that he’ll time one of his hot streaks with a couple of their upcoming postseason series. But if he’s unable to bury some goals, they know he’ll still be a force because of the type of player he has always been and because of his hunger to turn around the narrative and make sure the 2018 Bruins accomplish what the 2014 Rangers couldn’t do.
“That’s what you play for all year is to play in the playoffs,” Nash said. “It’s tough. Obviously over my career my expectation is to score goals, and that’s it. And when you don’t score goals, you have to help out in some other way, especially in the playoffs. It’s not about the individual in the playoffs, it’s about the team winning and … trust me, every single time I go out there I try to score as much as possible, I try to create as much offense as possible. But the reality of it is you’re playing against the other team’s top defense that’s trying to do the exact opposite thing, trying to not let you score.
“It’s hard, but I’m looking forward to another challenge.”
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.