How Rick Nash went from playoff bust to NHL's leading scorer

How Rick Nash went from playoff bust to NHL's leading scorer

As a goal scorer, Rick Nash has always dabbled in the extremes.

“I usually find myself a pretty streaky player. If they’re going in, they’re going in,” he said Tuesday night, after the New York Rangers rallied to beat the New Jersey Devils.

“If they’re not … they’re definitely not.”

They definitely weren’t last postseason. As the Rangers surged to the Stanley Cup Final, Nash’s goal-scoring was passing by on the other track, speeding in the opposite direction: Three goals in 25 games, and zero points in his last six games, five of them against the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings.

They definitely are this regular season. Nash has eight goals in seven games, having failed to score a goal vs. the Carolina Hurricanes on Oct. 16. He tallied again against the Devils, collecting a rebound and putting one by Cory Schneider to tie their game before Kevin Klein’s overtime game-winner.

“Half the battle has been getting the lucky bounces and I’ve been getting them so far,” he said.

“Puck Luck.” It’s a common rejoinder in an NHL locker room, explaining away bad streaks and humbly deflecting the work that goes into sparking the good ones.

It’s undeniable Nash has been the beneficiary of it this season: His PDO, which combines shooting percentage and save percentage while on the ice, is 113.5, placing him 11th in the NHL so far, although he’s taken more shots on goal (20) than anyone ahead of him. He settled in at 101.8 last season, third on the Rangers, and he scored 26 goals in 65 games. His current goal-scoring levels are as unsustainable as his drought was last postseason.

That said, to have scored nearly a third of those goals after just eight games, and after his postseason struggle, is one of the NHL’s most epic stunners. Especially when you consider none of them have come on the power play and all have come without the services of Derek Stepan, his center last season who’s out with an injured leg.

So besides the nebulous “puck luck,” what’s changed for Nash? Four factors:

1. Fitness. Nash looks leaner than he has with the Rangers, which he attributes to adding more running and sprints to his typical summer routine. He came to camp in great shape, and that positive offseason was a foundation for what we’re witnessing.

2. Fearlessness. Nash’s time with the Rangers has been defined by concussions as much as anything. As Larry Brooks notes, they affected his game last season, with Nash admitting that he was uncomfortable doing things that put himself in harm’s way. So far, he’s played with reckless abandon, crashing goalies and scoring from all around the offensive zone.

“Trying to keep my game honest and safe defensively, first of all. Trying to get my chances from good defense,” he said.

3. Mindset. Give Nash this: Although he’s clearly crushed he didn’t score more goals last postseason, he’s memorized the song coach Alain Vigneault was singing about him throughout the conference championship run: He played great hockey, and contributed to that effort, even if he didn’t hit the score sheet.

“Besides the goal scoring, we got to the Finals. It was a lot of fun. Every guy in this room was a huge piece of that puzzle,” said Nash.

The Rangers’ training camp mantra was to move on from last postseason. Nash apparently has.

4. Babies. McLaren Nash was born on Sunday, Oct. 12. It’s the first child for Nash and his wife Jessica, who was pregnant during last season and postseason, according to our math.

It’s “the best feeling in the world,” according to Nash. And here’s the thing about fatherhood: It changes you. It reorders life. It clears away the noise, even if that noise is the voices of thousands of Rangers fans questioning your effort, contract and stardom.

Which is to say that Rick Nash had, after the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, reached the crossroads that every player who’s brought into a New York team from another franchise faces:

They’re either falling in love with you, or you’re a bum.

But you know what else New York loves? An underdog. And so far, Rick Nash’s journey from playoff goat to league-leading scorer has them enchanted.