MONTREAL -- New York Rangers forward Rick Nash never minds being a defensive stopper on occasion. He likes his role on the penalty kill, feels he thrives in being counted on to play all 200 feet, and enjoys being able to contribute in ways that don't show up on the score sheet.
The problem through the first 14 games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is that's all Nash was doing, and that's not why the Rangers are paying him $7.8 million per season.
Sure, Nash was generating scoring chances, the most of any player on the team, according to coach Alain Vigneault, but they never amounted to anything tangible. He was without a goal in 15 straight games entering the Eastern Conference Final, the longest scoring drought of his career.
"There was definitely a lot of frustration built up," Nash said.
His solid defensive game helped him cope, to battle through, but Nash's mind was at a boiling point until he finally found the back of the net 4:36 into the third period of the Rangers' 7-2 rout in Game 1 against Montreal Canadiens.
It was New York's seventh goal of the game, but for Nash it was a total release.
He scored again in Game 2, a beautiful one-time snipe off the rush that turned into the game-winning goal in the Rangers' 3-1 victory, which put them up 2-0 in the best-of-7 series.
In addition to being the biggest offensive difference-maker for the Rangers since he first started playing in New York last season, Nash has always been a streaky scorer in the NHL. If this is the start of a hot streak, it couldn't have come at a better time for the Rangers.
Game 3 is Thursday at Madison Square Garden (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
"To see him finally get rewarded for working extremely hard -- he was finding other ways to contribute, but I think he might be getting that little touch around the net back," Vigneault said. "That's a really good sign for us."
Vigneault stressed the last part of that quote, nodding as he said it in almost a diabolical way that would suggest the Canadiens and anybody else that could potentially get in the Rangers' path this postseason better watch out for No. 61.
In a lighter moment, Vigneault also noted Nash is "smiling a little bit more lately."
Nash, who always comes across as an approachable and happy guy, was actually smiling on occasion during his scoring slump, but it seemed like more of a defense mechanism, a way to bottle up his frustration and not let the hockey world see how much he was really bothered by not scoring goals.
Remember, this is a player who has won the Rocket Richard Trophy, who has two 40-goal seasons, another five 30-goal seasons, and 47 goals in 109 regular-season games with the Rangers.
TURNING THE CORNER?
|Rick Nash Postseason Stats|
|vs. PHI & PIT||vs. MTL|
He's a scorer, not a defensive stopper. There is no confusion. There never was during his slump.
"We always knew what he's capable of," said Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who leads the team with six points in the conference final. "He's done it all year for us, so it was just a matter of time. That's what you need in a team. Not everybody plays consistently at the level they want to. I can say the same thing about myself from early on [in the postseason], but different guys stepped up. We had different guys stepping up when he was finding his. You just hope he has some confidence now, which it looks like he does."
Nash is typically low-key when talking about himself, but he's been honest about his scoring struggles this postseason.
He was bothered when the fans at Madison Square Garden booed him in the Rangers' dismal Game 4 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. Vigneault said he wished the fans would be supportive, but Nash admitted "you understand where they're coming from."
Nash was befuddled as to why he wasn't scoring late in the second round, noting the chances were there, at least two grade-A opportunities per game, he said.
He called his slump "the elephant in the room."
Center Brad Richards, who has felt the wrath of the Ranger fans in the past, sympathized with Nash during the first two rounds.
"It bothers you," Richards said. "He probably goes home and thinks about it a little bit. Who knows how much was on him? But you can tell. You're teammates. You feel for him. It's not a fun time, especially at home when things were going the way they were."
Richards said the Rangers talked about getting new life in a new series after beating the Penguins in Game 7. Nash was the poster boy for that.
"Now you get a new chance, and you could tell after the last series that he knew he had a great opportunity to get on a roll," Richards said. "The longer you go [in the playoffs], the more opportunity you have. The good thing about a slump is it's going to end. It did."