They are just two wins from the Stanley Cup final, facing a Montreal Canadiens team missing its star netminder and set to play two spread out games at Madison Square Garden for the right to move on.
Yet there are still debates raging in New York Rangers circles, most of them over one player in particular.
Rick Nash may finally be on the board with two goals in the last two games, but that’s done very little to quiet his critics.
We all know the key number here by now so we won’t belabour them. Yes, Nash had only two goals in his first 30 playoff games prior to his latest two, and no, that’s not really what you want in a player taking up nearly $8-million on your cap.
But Nash – who was always an incredibly popular player with the media and fans when he played in Columbus and internationally for Canada in the past – is a great case for there being more to the story than what’s under the ‘G’ column.
Let’s put it this way: The Rangers have outscored the opposition 2-to-1 at even strength with Nash on the ice in these playoffs. He has some of the best possession numbers in the league relative to his teammates, which means when he’s on the ice, New York has been in the offensive zone more than the defensive one.
And, playing primarily with Derek Stepan on a “top” line, Nash has posted those stats while getting the toughest checking assignments on the team.
While he doesn’t have a lot of goals, he’s doing a lot of other, subtler things well – and no one on this Rangers team is really filling the net. After 16 games, Marty St. Louis and Brad Richards lead the way with five goals (so no one is at a better than 25-goal pace) and then the scoring is spread incredibly evenly throughout the lineup, which has been a real asset in surviving two seven-game series already.
More than any recent coach I can recall in the semi-finals, Alain Vigneault is rolling all four lines, to the extent that the fourth liners like Brian Boyle and Dominic Moore are playing only three minutes less a game than Nash at even strength.
That was happening during the regular season, too, as Nash played the fewest minutes since his second season in the league – just 17 per game – which happened in part because of less of a role on the power play, which has really never been his strength.
Minus the minutes, he still produced 20 even-strength goals in 65 games. Prorated to an 82-game season, that would put him tied for 10th in one of the most important categories there is.
So this isn’t just about analytics.
One of the criticisms you frequently hear of Nash’s game here in New York is that he’s a perimeter player who doesn’t hit and simply peppers the net with shots. But he has always been more of a volume shooter – he has more shots per game the last four years than everyone but Alex Ovechkin – and, while it may look ineffective over stretches of a few games, that volume shooting can be an incredibly valuable skill to have.
The benefit of all those shots if you can shoot reasonably well is that even with a modest shooting percentage for a top liner (in the 10 per cent range) you still produce a pile of goals.
The problem comes when, as a lower percentage shooter on a low percentage team (like the Rangers), you hit a dip.
Suddenly you’ve got a lot of shots and no goals, and the Corsi critics are howling at the moon.
I wrote earlier in these playoffs about how the biggest difference between the NHL playoff and the regular season is the fact save percentages rise dramatically, in large part to the fact there are no more backups and/or poor starters. That means that even the best shooters are going to see their percentages decline, and even the most “clutch” players out there are going to have longer droughts than during the year.
Take Jonathan Toews as one example. He’s being (rightly) hailed as a repeat Conn Smythe candidate for his performance in these playoffs, but we really aren’t all that far removed from talking about his own goal drought.
And it was longer than the one Nash is in now.
Going back to the 2010 playoffs when he won his first Cup, Toews at one point had only four goals in a 41-game stretch in the postseason, something he managed despite playing on better teams and with better linemates.
Everyone wanted to know what was wrong with Toews.
Less than a year later, he’s scoring again and some are saying he’s better than Sidney Crosby, who will win the Hart Trophy in a landslide next month.
That’s not to say Nash is Toews. But what it does highlight is that we’re really not judging him on a whole lot, especially for a guy that generates offence somewhat randomly by firing four-plus pucks on net a game.
Nash’s first nine years (!) in the league, he played just four playoff games – not having the fortune of being drafted into as healthy an organization as Toews.
Last year, on a Rangers team that was playing a John Tortorella style that meant it often couldn’t score to save its life, Nash had one goal in two rounds.
Now, he’s finally added a pair this year.
What we’re left analyzing is a stretch of only 32 games and four goals, spread over an 11-year career. Human nature being what it is, there’s a strong desire to make definitive conclusions about what Nash is as a player based on solely that ‘G’ column when we probably shouldn’t.
“He's going through what players go through now and then,” was how Vigneault explained it on Tuesday morning. “He stuck with it. His teammates stuck with him. He kept working extremely hard, and it was just a matter of time for him, in our estimation, to come out of it and now it looks good for us.”
It could look great, if this is the start of something.
As detailed above, everything else in Nash’s game has been trending positive, to the point that a multi-goal outburst was and still remains the most likely outcome. If the Rangers eventually advance and play another eight to 10 games this spring, he will only need another four or five goals in that span to suddenly have respectable numbers again relative to his recent shooting percentages.
(You’ll recall Toews won his Conn Smythe four years ago with just seven goals.)
We obviously can’t know for sure what’s coming, but absent other red flags, the best assumption is Nash will get more of these bounces his way soon.
There’s no reason why this couldn’t be a Toews-like blip rather than a career-defining malaise – just as it now looks like Marian Gaborik’s slump during his brief time in New York wasn’t indicative of his abilities.
(That Gaborik now leads the playoffs in scoring with another team is one warning about reading too heavily into small samples.)
You also can’t overlook the fact that, even if Nash is not always putting them in, the Rangers are generating significantly more more shots, attempts and goals than they’re giving up with him on the ice.
We can certainly debate whether or not he is giving the Rangers full value for his enormous contract, but ultimately this was a trade made to add another weapon to put this team over the top while Henrik Lundqvist was in his prime – not necessarily to add THE weapon that could do it all.
Less than two years after acquiring him in a blockbuster deal, the Rangers are on the verge of finally making the finals for the first time in 20 years, and Nash has been a positive addition in a lot of ways to this team.
Especially if the big goals are yet to come.