Another Rick Nash playoff dilemma for New York Rangers

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Another Rick Nash playoff dilemma for New York Rangers
Another Rick Nash playoff dilemma for New York Rangers

During Game 1 of the New York Rangers’ series against the Washington Capitals, NBC analyst Mike Milbury said that Rick Nash was playing a “marshmallow soft” brand of hockey, which wasn’t exactly fair, considering that marshmallows are visible. 

Through eight playoff games, Nash has one goal and four assists. Against the Capitals, he has one assist. In his last 33 playoff games with the Rangers, he had four goals. In his last 33 regular-season games with the Rangers, he had 14 goals.

And yet he was visible in Game 2, setting the screen that allowed an Boyle’s goal from the point to sneak past Braden Holtby and pumping four shots on goal, more than any other Ranger. And he was very downright dominant in Game 3, with 15 shot attempts and seven of them finding Holtby.

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Still, nothing to show for it on Nash’s score sheet, which brings us back to a conversation that was ongoing in the Rangers’ run to the Cup Final last postseason:

Is Rick Nash’s lack of playoff goal-scoring hurting the Rangers, or does he do enough away from the score sheet to excuse it?

Here’s Jason Brough before Game 3:

Nash has only scored once in these playoffs, despite registering 25 shots. That stat line is reminiscent of last year’s, when he scored just three goals on 83 shots in the postseason, as well as the year’s before that, when he had just one goal on 42 shots.

In his career, Nash has just six playoff goals on 163 shots, for a remarkably low shooting percentage of 3.7. In the regular season, his career shooting percentage is dramatically higher, at 12.5.

Here’s Dave Lozo on Nash:

Let’s examine the two prevailing narratives around Nash through seven postseason games in 2015.The first one revolves around Nash having one goal, which was scored in the dying seconds of the Rangers’ 4-3 loss in Game 2 against the Penguins in the first round. It was meaningless and came when the game’s outcome was no longer in doubt, so in a way, Nash has zero goals this postseason.

It’s a criticism that unfairly piggybacks on his 2014 postseason, when he had zero goals the first two rounds and found himself rightfully booed on home ice during the second round. There was a myriad of reasons to get on Nash at this point last season, but his goal output in the 2015 playoffs isn’t reflective of what he's been doing on the ice.

Here’s Sean Hartnett on Nash:

Nash’s 32 shots is fourth-highest among NHL skaters this playoffs. Eventually, his luck is going to change for the better.

That being said, it’s mystifying how his shooting percentage takes such a drastic dip during the playoffs. Nash shot 13.8 percent during the regular season, when he scored a career-high 42 goals. Through eight playoff games, his percentage has fallen to 3.1 percent. Over his career, Nash shoots 12.5 percent during the regular season and 3.5 percent during the playoffs.

But the past is the past. Lately, Nash is doing everything right. If he continues performing the way he has, the goals will come.

Let’s begin with a caveat for Nash in this Capitals series: The loss of Mats Zuccarello to injury hurts this Rangers team in a significant way. During the regular season, Nash’s GA/60 jumped by a goal (2.69 from 1.69) when he played away from Zuccarello at even strength, and his possession slipped as well. Zucc makes hm better. 

The evaluations of Nash’s playoff game are all over the map, but let’s start with one point of agreement: He’s not a liability. He’s engaged in all three zones, he’s been more a physical presence – a necessity, given that he’s been battling Brooks Orpik – and he’s getting pucks to the net.

But now we get to the first point of contention, which is where those pucks are coming from.

Here’s a look at Nash’s full season of even strength chances, via War On Ice:

War On Ice
War On Ice

As you can see, the heavy work was in the slot and around the net, which is to be expected given Nash’s role as a big body in front of the net.

One of the beefs with Nash’s offensive game in the postseason is that he becomes a perimeter player, unable to make his way to the net. Last year, that was seen as being symptomatic from his concussion issues, something Nash himself acknowledged. But as you can see, during the regular season and playoffs this year he took most of his shots from the danger zone.

In Game 3, Nash’s seven shots traveled an average distance of 35.4 feet. Take out an 11-foot tip on goal and it jumps to 39.5 feet.

He noted after the game that the Rangers, as a whole, needed to get around Holtby’s net more than they have. “It’s getting to the inside. It’s getting traffic in front of him. They do really good with the box-outs,” he said.

But again, he does all the little things right, as has been cited by his coach for the last two postseasons. But as Brett Cyrgalis of the NY Post writes:

There seems to be a different tenor in his voice at this point in his career, a calm acknowledgment all the talk of doing good things means very little if he continues not to score.” 

And that’s where I’m at with Rick Nash.

It’s hard to completely trash the guy because he is, as has been pointed out incessantly, doing the little things right. The Rangers have scored 15 goals in the playoffs. Nash has a point on a third of them.

But this is a 42-goal scorer who has four goals in his last 33 playoff games. It’s inexplicable, baffling and borderline maddening.

How the hell does one go from a contending for the Richard Trophy to having people be content with him getting a pat on the head and an attaboy from his coach? How the hell does a sniper go from a 13.8 shooting percentage in the regular season to 3.1 in the postseason? For the love of puck, RADKO GUDAS had a 3.2 shooting percentage in the regular season!

It’s not fair to blame Rick Nash if the Rangers lose, nor is it fair to scrutinize him instead of others flailing offensively – we see you, Marty St. Louis – because of his regular season stats and his salary.

But it’s pretty obvious after eight games that this Rangers team’s margin for error is one goal. And when a guy who potted 42 of them in the regular season can’t generate them in the postseason, it makes the climb all the steeper, especially with Zuccarello (their fourth leading scorer in 2014) out.

“We’ve gotta work for our opportunities. It’s a matter of will, or wanting it more,” said Nash after Game 3.

It’s not an issue of eagerness with Rick Nash. It’s an issue of execution. And it’s lacked for two straight postseasons.

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