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'The goal' only partially defines Nash

Monday, 02.18.2008 / 8:45 AM / Player Profiles

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

Rick Nash's sensational game-winning goal against the Phoenix Coyotes on Jan. 17, 2008 has become an instant classic among hockey circles.
Watch Nash's spectacular goal
In hockey circles now it's discussed simply as "the goal, you know the one."

Jan. 17, 2008. Columbus 3, Phoenix 3. Twenty-seven seconds left in the third period. Rick Nash gathers a brilliant outlet pass from Michael Peca, knifes down the middle of the ice with Phoenix defenseman Keith Ballard and Derek Morris to beat.

It doesn't matter who is back for Phoenix. Nash is about to make poetry with the puck.

He dazzles with three ridiculous inside-outside moves to get around both Ballard and Morris. The puck then comes off his stick thanks to a poke check by Phoenix goalie Mikael Tellqvist.

It doesn't matter. Nash kicks it across the crease, right-to-left, backhand side to his forehand. Tellqvist is now way out of position, stuck on the far post. Nash deftly lifts the puck into the far corner. Goal. Columbus 4, Phoenix 3. Final.

"Yeah, pretty much, I blacked out," Nash said of the goal that came with 21.5 seconds left. "It was amazing how everything just went right. It was unbelievable."

The goal of the season -- you know the one – is, of course, a thing of beauty. The moves, the shakes, and the concentration are pictures that describe Nash's immeasurable talent.

But they only tell part of why Nash may be unstoppable in today's NHL. Not only is Nash one of the true power forwards in the game who eats up defensemen with his size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds), his vast array of moves and the aid of new restrictions on hooking and holding, he has now figured out how to play defense, too.

Under Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock, who helped show future Hall of Famers Mike Modano and Brett Hull the way to the other side of the red line, Nash has become a two-way threat, one who even kills penalties now.

Want an example? Look at the goal – you know the one.

The play began developing in the defensive zone when Nash was pressuring the puck. He came up to the point and forced an errant pass by Morris that bounced to Peca between the circles. As Nash broke up ice, Peca found him with a tape-to-tape pass. Morris got back, but he and Ballard were about to become highlight-reel fodder.

"He's a lot better now defensively," Nashville captain Jason Arnott told NHL.com about Nash. "We're kind of going that way with (Alexander) Radulov right now. The young guys score so much early in their careers that they don't learn how to play the defensive part of the game, which is a huge part of the game. It's always fun to score goals and play in the offense, but it's not really going to win you championships. You look at the past at who has won and how they have won, defensive play is important. I think he's learned that. He's playing both ends of the rink right now."

Nash was a 41-goal scorer under the old NHL rules before the lockout, but that same season he also played to a minus-35 rating. This season Nash is on pace for his second 40-goal NHL season, but he's playing to a vastly improved minus-5.

Nash never has scored more than 57 points in a season, but now he is on pace for close to 70. If he picks it up a bit down the stretch as the Blue Jackets fight for their first-ever Stanley Cup Playoff berth, Nash could become a point-per-game player this season.

Nash credits Hitchcock, who arrived in Columbus after nearly two months had passed last season and has since turned the Blue Jackets into a playoff contender.

"Before he came I was just kind of used for scoring goals and playing 13-14 minutes a game. Now it's all different," said Nash, who recorded a hat trick in the All-Star Game on Jan. 27. "I'm playing 20 minutes a game, penalty kills, last minutes of games. It's been a big difference."

"Hitch helped (Mike) Modano out in Dallas in a similar way, and they went on to win a Cup," Arnott said. "I see a lot of similarities in that, the way Rick is playing now on the defensive. And, he's scoring just as much as he was before."

Nash never doubted he could play this way -- he averages close to 21 minutes of ice time per game, is one of the Blue Jackets' top four forwards in shorthanded ice time, and he's their top forward on the power play -- but he was never really given a chance.

Just two seasons ago, Nash averaged all of eight seconds per game on the penalty kill. That was up from two seconds per game in 2003-04. He saw all of 1:02 on the penalty kill for his entire rookie season of 2002-03.

"You always think (you can play in all situations), but we had players that were put in those situations and for a young guy coming into the League you don't expect to get those privileges right away. Since (Hitchcock) has been here it's been good," Nash said. "They always say good offense comes from good defense. You know, it's true. Just look at Hitchcock's system. He's got the resume and it works. You just have to buy into it."

The fact remains, though, that Nash likely would have never been given a chance to score that goal -- you know the one -- prior to the lockout. He would have been hooked, held, or at least obstructed by either Ballard or Morris.

"A couple of years ago, no way," said San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton, who was Nash's linemate in Switzerland during the lockout season. "It's opened up a little more for him."

Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, who sees Nash eight times a season in the Central Division, says Nash is also now using his size so well.

"Whether it's coming out of the corners or coming down one-on-one on you, he's so good at using his size and that's why it makes it so much tougher to stop him," Lidstrom told NHL.com. "He's only getting better and better. He's part of the team concept now of playing strong defense. And, when he gets the puck he's ready to do something with it."

"You have to cheat to the defensive side for a guy like that because he's so explosive that he can beat you with just a couple of strides," added Phoenix defenseman Ed Jovanovski. "He's one of those players that can embarrass you in a split second."

Now that Nash has rounded into a complete player and Hitchcock's system is going full bore in Columbus, the only thing left for the Blue Jackets is to play their way into the playoffs for the first time in team history.

Yeah, pretty much, I blacked out. It was amazing how everything just went right. It was unbelievable." - Rick Nash on his dazzling goal

Anything less will be a major disappointment.

"I think it's really close, but the fans are kind of getting antsy. They want to see us make the playoffs, and we want to make the playoffs," Nash said. "The honeymoon stage is kind of over in Columbus. We have to start showing up with results.

Columbus currently sits third in the Central Division and tied for 11th in the Western Conference with 63 points, including 27 wins. The best season in franchise history came two years ago when the Jackets won 35 games and picked up 74 points.

That was good enough for a 13th place finish in the Western Conference.

"I still am a young guy," Nash said, "but saying that I'm a leader in Columbus and the time to do it is right now."

In hockey circles now, that's called leadership -- you know the kind.

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com.

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