John Tortorella wouldn’t go there. He knew full well that New York Rangers stars Rick Nash and Brad Richards weren’t at their best throughout majority of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Washington Capitals.
“I’m not going to talking about guys that are fighting it,” Tortorella said over the weekend. “We know both of them are fighting it, I’m not going to get into a public conversation about it. It doesn’t do anybody any good.”
Richards earned a seat on the bench and a demotion to the fourth line for much of Game 6 at Madison Square Garden, but Nash’s lack of production became the most intriguing story line of the series. Going into Monday night’s deciding Game 7, Nash had just one assist amid plenty of speculation that he’s playing through injury.
“Anytime you can’t help the team … it’s not the best thing and there’s a little frustration,” Nash said recently. “But when you’re not scoring, you have to find other ways to help, whether it’s a big hit or a defensive play, setting someone up.”
Nash has done that. His presence in front of the net contributed to New York’s only goal in Sunday’s Game 6, and he set up Derek Stepan’s winner in Game 4.
Without filling the net, the 28-year-old wing has been a noticeable player in the offense zone most of the series.
“Obviously Nash hasn’t scored, but I’ve felt he’s played pretty well through it,” Caps goaltender Braden Holtby said. “He’s had some chances and created some stuff. It’s always harder for those guys because you’re keying in on them a lot more, especially when you’re playing game after game.”
Nash took a maintenance day last week but declared the next day, “I’m healthy.” The way he has been unable to quickly snap the puck on net at least makes the question worth asking.
But it’s also worth wondering if the Caps’ game plan is working. Injured or not, Washington through six games contained Nash, who had 21 goals and 21 assists in the regular season, by collapsing on him and taking away his room to maneuver.
“We try to do the same thing against everybody: just have good gaps and take away time and space,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “I don’t know, we’ve been lucky I guess that he’s been off the scoresheet for the most part but, I don’t think that we’ve done anything specifically different against him.”
Nash, whom coach Adam Oates called a “marquee guy,” is 6-foot-4 and 213 pounds, so it’s not an easy task to keep him from making an impact. A prototypical power forward, part of defending Nash is hitting him.
“We’re trying to play him hard,” Alzner said. “When he’s in the corner, we’re trying to give him a few shots. I don’t know how used [he is] to being hit and hit hard and because he is such a big guy, a lot of times you give him a little bit more space. But he’s got that one move [where he] skates backwards and it’s almost impossible to check him when he gets into that position.”
Nash can back down defenders going to the net like a basketball player posting up. It’s part of his unique skill-set, and the way he creates offense means he’s always a threat.
Even while holding him down, Caps players knew that.
“He’s one of those special players that if you give him enough time he will break out of it,” right wing Troy Brouwer said.