When the Columbus Blue Jackets finally acquiesced to forward Rick Nash's trade request and sent him to the New York Rangers last summer, he had to be inherently aware of the pressure that he would inevitably face.
The lights of Broadway are significantly brighter than those in America's Heartland, and being a former No. 1 pick and seven-time 30-goal scorer comes with heightened expectations -- as it does for any player with such credentials. And during the regular season, Nash met them, leading the Rangers with 21 goals in 44 games.
But through five games against the Capitals in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, Nash has been neutralized. While he leads the Rangers with 19 shots on goal, none of them have beaten goaltender Braden Holtby. During New York's 2-1 overtime loss to Washington Friday, Nash didn't register a shot on goal until the extra session.
“I thought in the third period and overtime, I had some chances to make something happen,” Nash said after Friday's game. “But it’s just not working right now.”
Rangers coach John Tortorella has refused to critique Nash's performance or answer the mounting questions on why his star winger is struggling, but the Capitals provided some insight into their game plan in regards to slowing down the 28-year-old.
"We’re trying to play him hard," defenseman Karl Alzner said Friday. "When he’s in the corner, we’re trying to give him a few shots. I don’t know how used [he is] to being hit and hit hard and because he is such a big guy. A lot of times you give him a little bit more space, but he’s got that one move [where he] skates backwards and it’s almost impossible to check him when he gets into that position. But yeah, he’s a good player and we’ve been fortunate to keep him off for a bit."
According to defenseman Steven Oleksy, it has taken a concerted effort not just from the defensive corps, but the entire team to stop Nash.
"I think it's everybody working together," he said. "I don't think it's just the defensemen, I think the forwards are doing a great job recognizing -- especially when he's out there -- in putting good back pressure. That's the kind of a guy that's deadly if he has time. When you've got back pressure, it allows the D to take a good angle and keep a good gap and that's a large part in why we're shutting him down."
Nash has recognized that the Capitals have collapsed around him, taking away as much open space as possible when he's on the ice by throwing two defenders at him. Of course, that leaves somebody open, but Nash hasn't been able to find that open man yet. He has one assist in the series: the primary helper on forward Derek Stepan's game-winning goal in Game 3.
As a result, Nash has admitted that "there's a little frustration," which will only help the Capitals as they look to eliminate him and the Rangers in Game 6 Sunday.
"A lot of times, guys will try to do too much and they'll try to get away from their game," Oleksy said. "As a scorer like that, when you're not getting your chances, you start to grip your stick too tight and take chances you might not always take. It definitely creeps in."
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