It is after games like the one the Rangers played last night in Dallas that you fall right back in love with the trade that brought Rick Nash to New York. You might say the team gave up too much to bring in a guy who’s never scored more than 80 points in a season. You might say they shouldn’t have broken up a core that led them to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012. You might even say they were flat out better off without him.
But then, midway through the first period in Dallas with the Rangers already on the ropes, you watch him burst through on a breakaway, twist goalie Kari Lehtonen into a pretzel and slide the puck home with a magician’s touch. In one play, the entire scope of the game is changed. And then you remember: that’s why he’s here.
Nash can do things that no one else on this team can do. That no one else on this team can dream of. He has an enforcer’s size and a goal-scorer’s hands, and as if that isn’t enough, he has the pace of a speed skater. His overall skill set is of that once-or-twice-in-a-generation type, and there are thousands of kids on ponds across Canada that could attest to that: Nash is the kind of player that young ones pretend to be.
Aside from Henrik Lundqvist, there is no one else like that on the Rangers. They boast a deep cast of strong forwards, yes, but it’s hard to imagine a pair of mites playing the parts of Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello. They just don’t have that allure, that flair, that potential to turn a game on its head at a moment’s notice. And say what you want about Marian Gaborik, but the Rangers didn’t have a true gamebreaker before the Nash trade either.
Remember how often the lines were juggled under John Tortorella? Sure, part of that was simply a function of Tortorella’s style, but a larger part was due to the homogenous makeup of the roster. No one, especially among the forwards, was that much better than anyone else. And so no one deserved to play on the first line every single night. If you had the hot hand, you were a first-liner.
That’s how Rick Nash is transcendent. That’s how he’s above the rank and file. No matter what he’s done recently, he is going to play on the first line in the team’s next game, and every game after that until the ice melts off this earth. He has to. Because at any given moment, he can completely alter the evening.
It’s not that Nash is above reproach. It’s not that he isn’t held accountable for mistakes. If he decides that, you know what, I don’t feel like playing defense tonight, he’ll sit. It’s that the only disservice to the team bigger than playing Nash when he’s struggling is benching him.
When he returned from his concussion on Tuesday, Alain Vigneault committed to limiting his ice time to 15 minutes. (Average ice time for a top-six forward is between 18 and 20 minutes.) But then the Rangers were trailing in the third period, in desperate need of the tying goal, and Vigneault was calling Nash’s number almost every other shift. By the end of the night he had logged nearly 18 minutes of play. Screw that plan, after all.
After Nash played more big-time minutes against Dallas on Thursday, Vigneault acknowledged his failed intentions. “You went into that first game maybe thinking keep him around 15 minutes…” a reporter probed, hinting at Vigneault’s decision to do just the opposite. Vigneault smiled wryly, his tail half between his legs, then laughed and said “Yeaaaa…we’ll talk about that tomorrow!”
The implication: there’s no limit on Nash. How could there be!
Especially for a Rangers team that had scored five goals in their past four games entering last night. And Nash proved why the leash is off when he buried his breakaway opportunity for the team’s first first-period goal in four games. He makes good on his opportunities with a goal-scorer’s regularity.
That – not “more offense” – is what the Rangers need. For a good three weeks now, the team has been creating plenty of offense to win games. They have controlled puck possession, forced turnovers and often deluged the opposing goalie. (The Rangers rank 7th in the NHL in shots/game.) What they haven’t done is translate that offense into goals.
There just so happens to be few things that Nash does better.