It took 110 games spanned over 14 months, but Friday night in Columbus, Rick Nash finally came of age in a Rangers uniform.
And guess what? He was held off the score sheet.
That alone should tell you what’s been missing from Nash’s game during his tenure in New York. The Big Easy has never come under fire for squandering his offensive gifts or neglecting his defensive duties or even shirking from his role as a leader. No, over the course of two seasons with the Rangers, Nash has lived up to his offensive billing (mostly), played hard in his own end and emerged as a character guy in the locker room.
He’s also gained a reputation, surely much to his chagrin, as a friendly foe on the ice. For while Nash has always played hard for the Blueshirts, he’s never played particularly mean, always seeming to defer when challenged physically. Slashed after the whistle, he’s thrown his obligatory slash back and then skated to the bench. Badgered behind the play, he’s fought his way by and then yelled at the ref to take notice. In many ways, Nash has been the face of fair play while with the Rangers, ever above the game’s extracurricular turmoil.
So good for him, for honoring the integrity of his sport. But at what point does obedient become submissive? Worse, when does passive start to look impassive? Eventually, a man has to throw the rules to the wind and stand up for himself.
Or else end up like Marian Gaborik, who, by the end of his Rangers’ tenure, was so easily intimidated he was rendered irrelevant on the ice. A creature as docile as they come, Gaborik was a popular target for bullies on the other bench, a guy who players could strong-arm and push around without having to answer for it. (O, where art thou, Brandon Prust??) It was hard to watch the team’s best goal-scorer back down from assault after assault – his head tilted tamely to the ice as he skated away – without thinking do something, man!! ANYthing!!!
In Gaborik’s defense, he isn’t exactly built for a rough-and-tumble style of play. At 6’1, 204 pounds (and are we really believing that latter number?), he can’t afford to go dropping the gloves every time he’s hacked across the ankle or chopped in the back of the leg. If he was meek, it was mostly because he didn’t have the option to be mean.
Nash, on the other hand, is built like a fridge. He’s the biggest forward on the Rangers’ roster outside of Brian Boyle, and can withstand the extra physicality. When he backs away from a scuffle, it’s not because he has to but because he chooses to. And thus where Rangers fans looked at Gaborik as a pansy, they have often looked at Nash as a guy who just doesn’t seem to care. What they’ve been wanting to see from him, more than anything else, is a snarl every now and then, a look of down-to-the-core anger. Christ, what does it take to piss this guy off?
Well they found out in his Columbus homecoming. From the start Friday night, Nash was physically engaged, clearly galvanized by the personal circumstance. He was hurling his body around and driving hard to the net, seeking out contact wherever he could find it. This was a combative Rick Nash, an in-your-face Rick Nash, and toward the end of the second period his emotions boiled over.
After having his breakaway goal disallowed and ending up in a heap at the side of the net, Nash skated into Sergei Bobrovksy’s crease to retrieve his stick. Bobrovsky, who had been giving it to Nash all game long, flung Nash’s stick away just as he was bending down to pick it up. Clearly peeved, Nash stood up to Bobrovsky, all 6’4 of that towering frame, and threw a double-fisted punch to his chin, inciting a goal-mouth melee in the process. He’d receive a two-minute minor for roughing, but Nash wasn’t finished yet.
At the opening faceoff in the third period, Blue Jackets’ antagonist Matt Calvert began sparring with Nash while the ref prepared to drop the puck. The moment he did, Calvert slew footed Nash then crosschecked him twice in the head while he was down on the ice. For Nash, enough was enough.
He got up and immediately dropped the gloves, challenging Calvert to do the same. Calvert obliged – of course he did – and the bell was rung. When the dust had settled, it was Nash who ended up on the ice first, but not before connecting with a number of hard rights to Calvert’s chops. On hockeyfights.com, you can bet this one will be scored a win for Nash.
As for the game, score it a win for the Rangers. The Blueshirts scored three times in the third after watching Nash go rogue, and skated off with a huge 3-1 win. Afterward, the talk in the locker room centered on Nash and his truculence, and how the team dialed things up a few notches after seeing their best player get his nose dirty.
“I got really fired up. I got mad,” said Henrik Lundqvist, who kicked out 25 shots in the win. “I’m like, ‘We’re beating this team now. There’s no way we’re losing.’”
Derick Brassard, who netted the game winner, agreed.
“Rick, he showed great leadership tonight,” Brassard said. “He showed emotion, character and when he fought in the third period our whole bench was standing up and he gave us such a boost. I think that Rick really competed hard tonight and gave us a big lift.”
As for Nash, he downplayed the impact the fight had on the game. In typically understated style, he simply said, “What am I supposed to do? Let a guy push me around?”
Amen, say thousands of Rangers fans.
In a game where Nash failed to record a point, he may have turned in his finest performance as a Ranger. At the very least, his truest, his most authentic. For there was no affectation in his display last night, and certainly no cordiality. Nash was revealed, exposed down to his bones, and it turns out there’s a fire burning pretty hot deep in his core.
Once the Big Easy, now the Big Nasty, Rangers fans will no longer have to wonder if Nash truly cares. Because finally, after months of turning the other cheek, Rick “nashed” his teeth.