Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

Sure, players in every sport are judged disproportionately by the playoffs, fair or not. But make that double in hockey, where — as in college basketball — casual fans zone out during the regular season and emerge come tournament time.

Which brings us to Rick Nash of the Rangers, the long-ago first overall pick in the NHL draft and a big-name offseason acquisition in 2012 from the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Avid followers of the team know him as an often-very-good, seldom-great forward who in five seasons here has not broken out as a crossover star such as Henrik Lundqvist or a fan favorite such as Mats Zuccarello or a strong-silent-type fixture such as captain Ryan McDonagh.

The rest of us know him for what he does in the playoffs, where to his credit he has been a regular visitor and a reliable winner, much like the rest of this core group of Rangers.

But . . . let’s just say there has been some unevenness there for a guy with his regular-season scoring credentials, including three seasons with 40 or more goals and five others with at least 30.

Nash, 32, had five goals in his first 41 playoffs games with the Blue Jackets and Rangers, including three in the 25 games the Rangers played en route to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.

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But he has 10 in his last 33, including one in Tuesday night’s 4-1 rout of the Senators in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinal. He has three in nine playoff games this year, including the game-winner — part of a stellar all-around effort — against the Canadiens in the pivotal fourth game of the first round.

In nine playoff games, he has 31 shots, among the league leaders.

Asked after Tuesday’s game whether he is happy with his performance of late, Nash said, “Yeah, I feel like I’m battling, getting to the net. It seems like each series there’s a heavy battle. As long as we keep winning them, I’m happy.”


Nash is happy to be credited as an all-around, two-way player, but he knows his primary goal is goals, so anything short of that won’t do.

Thus after a 6-5, double-overtime loss to the Senators in Game 2 did he lament a missed opportunity in the first overtime in which he had a clear shot with Senators goaltender Craig Anderson out of position. But Ottawa’s Kyle Turris was able to deflect Nash’s attempt wide of the net.

After practice Monday, Nash was asked whether he had replayed that moment in his mind over the ensuing two days. “Only a thousand times,” he said.

There will be only good replays on Wednesday’s off day. With the Rangers leading Game 3, 2-0, in the second period, Nash took a pass from Derek Stepan and ripped it past Anderson to all but seal the victory.

Nash kept the play alive by deftly stopping himself at the blue line to wait for Stepan to cross it. Not as easy as it looks.

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“It was at the end of a shift,” Nash said. “It always sucks to stop and start when you’re a little tired, but Step made a great play early, which made their D man make a decision to step up or take the pass away. He opted to take the pass away.”

That would be Ottawa’s Marc Methot, who stayed with Stepan as he charged down the middle. So Stepan passed to Nash, who had no need to rush before snapping the puck off Anderson’s right arm from the left faceoff circle.

“You’re not used to that much time, especially in the playoffs,” Nash said, “but Step made a good play to pass it early, which made their defenseman make a decision.”

It was just one goal in one game. But it is May, and thus the kind of goal that people remember.