Even though Rick Nash
is a former goal-scoring champion, four-time All-Star and a former member of the NHL All-Rookie team, the big Columbus Blue Jackets right winger is not as well known as Central Division rivals Nicklas Lidstrom, Kris Draper, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit Red Wings' players who show up in the Stanley Cup Playoffs every season.
Nash, in fact, never has been to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in his five NHL seasons and his Columbus Blue Jackets have never reached the playoffs in their eight seasons. Enough is enough, as far as Nash is concerned.
The Blue Jackets are in the thick of the playoff battle for the first time this season and it should be no surprise that it's happening in Nash's first year as captain.
Nash is tied for ninth with 32 goals and ranks 16th with 65 points, despite playing with a rotating cast of linemates this season. He has predominately been skating with center Manny Malhotra and left winger Kristian Huselius
. The Blue Jackets are currently third in the Central Division and sixth in the Western Conference, although there are eight Western teams within eight points of fifth place.
Offense isn't all that Nash has been contributing this season. Under the tutelage of coach Ken Hitchcock, Nash is playing in all situations. It's a manifestation of the old saying that a general doesn't ask his troops to do something he wouldn't do.
"I didn't kill penalties before 'Hitch' got here," Nash said. "When he got here, he explained to me he wanted me to be a complete player, not just meant to score goals. That means on the ice in the last minute if we're up a goal, down a goal, power play, and penalty kill. I just found some good success killing penalties."
"I don't think it's necessary that the captain is there for all aspects, there are strengths and weaknesses," Hitchcock explained. "I think it helps your team when he plays in all of those situations. To me, Rick earned the right and the responsibility.
"I don't think you can be a captain if you're not going to go out and play in the positions where you have to make sacrifices. Killing penalties is the best area where you have to make sacrifices. I don't think you can be a good captain unless you are prepared to go out there and do that job."
The Blue Jackets have won six of their last 10 games and Nash has 9 goals and 5 assists in that span. He's determined to get into the playoffs and likes the way the team is playing, especially an 8-2 whipping Saturday of the Central Division's first-place Detroit Red Wings.
"It's been good lately. My past years here, things have been pretty tough, in tough situations," Nash admitted. "Usually, right around now we're just playing for our pride and for our fans' excitement. But to be able to play for a playoff spot, it's a great feeling. To kind of have my first full year as captain, helping bring this team together, which I think (General Manager) Scott Howson has done a great job. We're a tight group on the ice, but we're even tighter off the ice. I think that's important when you look at the teams around the league."
Nash, who shared the 2004 Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy with Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk with 41 goals, had an unassisted hat trick in that game against the Red Wings, the NHL's first since Rocket Richard did it in 1948.
"It's pretty special. I didn't really realize they were all unassisted till after the game," Nash said. "You think about it, it's pretty tough to do. Even if you try to get an unassisted goal, usually one of your players always touches it. You know, it was pretty cool, a pretty special honor to be named with a legend like him."
"I didn't kill penalties before 'Hitch' got here. When he got here, he explained to me he wanted me to be a complete player, not just meant to score goals. That means on the ice in the last minute if we're up a goal, down a goal, power play, and penalty kill. I just found some good success killing penalties." -- Rick Nash
The victory against the Red Wings was the Blue Jackets' second vs. Detroit since the All-Star Game. Nash was asked if the Blue Jackets, a team getting increasingly bigger and faster, have the formula to defeat the defending Stanley Cup champions.
"Yeah, it seems like we're finding a way and a game plan that works to beat them," Nash said. "I think we've just come to terms that we're not going to beat them with talent. The only way we're going to do it is with hard work. We've got all 22 guys in the dressing room convinced that's the way we're going to do it. That's how we win the games.
"We have a younger group this year with kind of an older mix. All our older guys are tight with the younger guys. I think it's important for a young team, to have a young leader that they can relate to, kind of easy to talk to, (who they can) come (to) and really tell them their problems or if they have any issues."
Nash said he's not worried that the Blue Jackets might draw the Red Wings in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He's more worried about simply making the playoffs.
"I don't think it's necessary that the captain is there for all aspects, there are strengths and weaknesses. I think it helps your team when he plays in all of those situations. To me, Rick earned the right and the responsibility."
-- Ken Hitchcock
"I think it would be a great fit for us, you know, nice and close to home," Nash said. "But it's a matter of us just getting there, trying to get there in the last 16 games. Once we're there and we're in it, I don't think we're going to be too worried who we play.
"They're obviously the best team in the League. They were the best team in the League last year, and they proved that. I think I read somewhere they made the playoffs, in the top four sports, the last 17 years. I think they know exactly where they're at and what they're doing."
Nash said the Blue Jackets' challenge is to give everything they have to win as many games as possible while not expending all their energy before the playoffs. That's not easy, he said.
"There's really a fine line that we've got to control," Nash said. "We can't get exhausted at the time when we have to be having our best games. In saying that, we have to know how valuable these points are. We're leaning a lot on coach Hitchcock to help us through this, keep us fresh. The guys that have been there before know what it takes. These guys, like (Fredrik) Modin and (Mike) Peca and (Mike) Commodore, they've been to the stretch, all the way.
"We've got to make sure there's a fine line there where if we need a day off, a couple of the guys need a day off, we get the day off. Or, if guys need to skate and stay fresh, they need to do that. I think everyone on our team is on the same page with all that."
Author: John McGourty | NHL.com Staff Writer