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New season sees Rangers' Nash an elite scorer again

by Dan Rosen

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- The puck dropped in front of Rick Nash as if it arrived gift-wrapped with a card on it that read, "Open for a goal."

It dropped at the feet of the New York Rangers forward, which were positioned perfectly in front of the crease. The bounce was timed perfectly with the blade of his swinging stick.

Forgive Nash for getting a chuckle out of his good fortune. Forgive him for feeling that he deserves some.

"Last year during the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs I would go to the net and that puck would never drop on my stick like that," Nash said.

It did 4:48 into the third period Monday against the Minnesota Wild at Madison Square Garden. Nash made it count for his ninth goal in nine games. He scored three goals in 25 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season.

"For that to land perfectly as I'm swinging and go in the net," Nash said. "It's just funny to think about how it goes in."

There was nothing funny about Nash's postseason scoring slump last season. He couldn't explain it. He couldn't believe it.

Before the Eastern Conference Final, after 14 games and zero goals, Nash called his scoring drought the "elephant in the room," even though the Rangers were winning.

He finally broke out, if you can even call it that, with three goals in the Rangers' six-game series win against the Montreal Canadiens. That was it. He used up all his good fortune.

Nash didn't score in the Stanley Cup Final against the Los Angeles Kings. He didn't have a point. He couldn't even find the back of an open net in overtime of Game 5, his shot instead hitting the shaft of Slava Voynov's stick to prevent the Rangers from forcing the series back to New York.

"That sums it up pretty good," Nash said.

It wasn't for lack of effort or opportunity. New York coach Alain Vigneault said Nash was the Rangers' leader in scoring chances during the playoffs. He led the League with 83 shots on goal.

He has nine goals on 29 shots this season.

"Just wasn't finishing for whatever reason," Vigneault said of Nash's postseason run.

How infuriating.

"Obviously it was tough," Nash said. "I was trying to score every game, trying to help the team. But in saying that I helped in other areas. The penalty kill was really good and I had a part in that. I was out there in a lot of defensive moments."

All true. All important. All part of the reason why the Rangers reached the Cup Final. But the Rangers aren't paying Nash $7.8 million to be a checker.

That's not a concern now.

Nash has nine goals through the first nine games of the season for the first time in his career. He scored eight through nine games in 2007-08, when he finished with 38 goals. He scored six in nine games in 2003-04, when he scored 41 goals, enough to share the Rocket Richard Trophy with Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk.

How does Nash explain his production?

"It's just the puck is going in," Nash said. "I always found myself a streaky player. I think some of the goals this year, I'm shooting where I wasn't aiming and it still goes in. A few lucky bounces."

Maybe so, but they're earned lucky bounces. Nash might not feel that he's doing anything differently, but the results are different because the effectiveness he is having every time he swings his legs over the boards is different.

Nash typically is the most noticeable Rangers player when he's on the ice, using his power and big frame (he's 6-foot-4, 220 pounds) to stickhandle around and through defenders. When he's at his best, as he is now, it takes two or three players to knock him off the puck.

"He's such a big body and commands so much respect on the ice that if you're defending him, he attracts a crowd," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. "When he's attracting guys to the front [of the net], it opens things up for other guys. That's big for us."

Nash is getting to the front of the net and staying there, whereas during the playoffs last season he'd find himself stuck on the outside far too often. His goal against the Wild is the perfect example. He came off the bench on a line change and immediately went to the net. The puck came to him.

"When you're in those ruts you find yourself on the outside a lot," Nash said. "One of the things you focus on when you're struggling is to get to the inside. Going to the net, that's where the goals come from."

Nash is leaner and appears quicker, byproducts of a change he made in his offseason training. He incorporated more running, long distance and sprints, into his training.

"The young players coming into the League are so quick," Nash said. "It was to keep up with them."

There might be a change in Nash's mindset that is allowing him to get to the front of the net more and with ease this season. He isn't thinking about a head injury.

Nash sustained a concussion in the third regular-season game last season. It was his second concussion in less than eight months. He missed the next 17 games.

He came back and scored 26 goals to lead the Rangers, a number he said was "pretty good," especially after missing 17 games, but some of Nash's fearlessness was gone because of the multiple concussions.

"For sure it's tough to gain that confidence after having a couple of head injuries in a row," Nash said. "It makes you think when you have those head injuries that there are other things in life. You see what happens in other sports to guys that are older and retired and you understand there's a bigger picture in life and we've got to live the rest of our lives with these bodies."

Nash's effectiveness this season (his goals are a byproduct of that) hasn't changed regardless of his center. He has produced with Martin St. Louis, Kevin Hayes and Derick Brassard. Ironically, the center Nash played with most during the playoffs last season, Derek Stepan, hasn't played this season because of a broken leg.

"We're trying to sort out the personnel in the middle, and the good thing is anybody that I play with Rick, he seems to be producing anyway," Vigneault said. "I just need to sort out the other pieces around him right now."

It wasn't long ago Nash was trying to sort out his own game and scoring problems. Now it seems like he can do no wrong.

He's skating with power and confidence. He's playing to his size and looks like the biggest man on the ice, creating room for himself in prime scoring areas. Is it any wonder then that pucks are dropping at his feet, in time to be struck by the blade of his swinging stick?

"He was there [in front of the net] before, he was getting the looks, and now they're going in," Vigneault said. "You know goal scorers; sometimes they get hot. And there's no doubt right now he's pretty hot."


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