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Rangers' Rick Nash welcomes pressure of playoff spotlight

Rick Nash of the New York Rangers celebrates

Rick Nash of the New York Rangers celebrates his second period goal against the New Jersey Devils at Madison Square Garden. (April 27, 2013) Credit: Jim McIsaac

The limelight isn't unfamiliar to Rick Nash, who has starred for Team Canada in the Olympics and in the World Championships. But there's a different glow on Broadway during the NHL playoffs, and Nash, the bearded, soft-spoken power forward, is ready.

"That's what I signed up for. It's what it's all about,'' said Nash, acquired by the Rangers in a blockbuster trade with Columbus last July 23. "There's not a bigger stage. I think great athletes love the pressure. You look at guys around the league, when a lot of pressure's on them, they produce even at a better rate. I'm sure most guys in this locker room understand what it's like to play in the playoffs here, but I'll find out fast.''

Nash, 28, has acclimated himself to life in Manhattan, and it shows. He scored his 20th and 21st goals in Saturday's 4-0 victory against the Devils at the Garden. With those goals, Nash, who played 44 games, finished 10th in the league, but every player above him played three or four more games.

"He's been a guy from Day One that has zero maintenance to him; he's just a pro,'' coach John Tortorella said. "He has fit in very well here. I'm very happy for him that he gets rewarded.''

After playing in Davos, Switzerland, during the lockout, Nash started with three goals and eight assists in 14 games, but then missed four games, starting Feb. 19. It was believed that he was concussed on a hit by Bruins winger Milan Lucic on Feb. 12, but Nash sidestepped direct questions when he returned to practice. "It's a lot of different things,'' he said at the time. "I've been banged up quite a bit, and obviously didn't feel like I could compete out there.''

When Nash returned, he was back in form, using his speed and 6-4 frame to bullrush around defensemen and drive to the net, scoring six goals in five games.

That was vintage Nash, the former first overall pick in the 2002 entry draft who has scored 310 goals and added 279 assists in 718 games, a five-time All-Star whose only postseason experience in nine years with the Blue Jackets in 2008-09 was forgettable.

In a four-game sweep by the Detroit Red Wings, he scored a goal and had two assists and when asked recently if there was anything he remembered about that series, Nash quickly responded, "No,'' as if shaking off a nightmare.

It's not as if Nash completely avoided some slumps in his first season in New York. Since March 10, he's gone significant stretches without a point, in four consecutive games once and three straight games twice, the last of which came before Saturday's two-goal outburst.

"I had my chances,'' said Nash, who is one of only three active players, along with Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Buffalo's Thomas Vanek, to score 20 or more goals in eight straight seasons. "The Florida game, I had a couple good shots,'' he said. "The Carolina game, a couple good chances; as long as the chances are coming I'm happy.''

Brad Richards, who has emerged from his own offensive downturn and centered Nash and Mats Zuccarello for the last two games, understands the anguish of not producing.

"It doesn't matter who you are, you play long enough, you realize offensive guys need to be involved,'' Richards said. "If you're not, people are always asking questions; it doesn't matter how many little things you do when you're supposed to be on the scoreboard. You want to be on there, it's not a selfish thing; you just want to be a part of it. That's what he wants to do, that's what he's here for. The goals should make him feel good, and just the excitement of being in the playoffs, he'll build on that, too.''

For his part, Nash, who was fifth in the league in shots on goal with 176, appreciates the playmaking skills of Zuccarello and Richards, who should be a strong complement to his willingness to fire away. On his goals Saturday, he said, "Both times, I was just standing in front and they found me.''

Zuccarello, quicker and more confident than in his last stint as a Ranger, said, "You just try to give him the puck; from every angle, he has a better chance of scoring than me.''

Nash enjoys not having to be the focal point of the team, as he was in Columbus, and praised the leadership of Henrik Lundqvist and captain Ryan Callahan. "They've been unbelievable,'' he said.

Nash too, wants to shine in his second postseason, which begins Thursday in Washington, and presumably will last longer than his first foray. "This is what you want to play in as a professional athlete,'' he said. "Meaningful games, playoff games, big games. We've got to make sure we're ready to produce.''

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