Rick Nash, the Rangers' leading scorer, does all the little things coaches and teammates love. He plays defense, he is a ferocious checker and he handles himself in a way that creates opportunities for other players on the ice.
Of course, none of that is the reason that Nash is the Rangers' most important player not named Henrik Lundqvist as they head into their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night. As much as the Rangers like to talk about what a well-rounded player Nash is, his main role is to create offense and score goals. And for a reason unknown to everybody, including Nash, this is something that has been a challenge for him in postseasons of the past.
Nash has just four goals in 37 playoff games with the Rangers (and one in four games with Columbus). Last season, during their run to the Stanley Cup Final, he had just three goals in 25 games. He failed to score a single point against Los Angeles in the Final. His struggle reached a painful crescendo in double overtime of Game 5 when his shot at an open net was blocked by Kings defenseman Slava Voynov's stick.
Nash may have been the Rangers MVP of the regular season this year, after scoring 42 goals, the second most in the league. Still, he knows he's going to be continually seen as the guy who can't get it done until he can come up big in the postseason.
"I know you have to pick up your game much more for the playoffs," Nash, 30, said Tuesday after practice. "When this much more is on the line, you have to find the next gear."
This may be the year he does it as he put in an immense amount of conditioning work during the offseason. Slimmer but still as powerful, Nash has put together the best regular season of his career. Nash has been very aggressive over the course of the season with 204 shots on goal. Only Alex Ovechkin, who had 395, shot more.
"This year, a lot of his shots are finding ways to go in," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "He is shooting at a high level . . . That's what goal scorers do. They shoot the puck. He's an important part of our team."
Marc Staal said what impresses him most about Nash is how he has been able to maintain a high-level all-around game while becoming an elite scorer this season.
"Stuff that you need your elite players to do in hockey games, he did those things," Staal said. "There's not a whole lot of cheat in his game for a guy who scored 42 . . . It's pretty impressive to have your lead offensive player play like that, forces everyone to play that way."
Nash says he knows that no one will care how many goals he scored in the regular season once the puck is dropped Thursday night.
Said Nash: "It gives you confidence. But at the same time, all numbers and stats are whipped away. I feel good heading in."