GREENBURGH, N.Y. — New York Rangers forward Taylor Pyatt initially thought the equipment managers might not like him as much as Rick Nash.
Each day, Pyatt would glance over to Nash’s adjacent locker at the team’s practice facility and notice long socks, wrist bands, ankle braces and other assorted gear neatly arranged and folded, etiquette rarely seen within hockey dressing rooms. Pyatt figured it was at the request of New York’s newest superstar, not the quirk of a meticulous neat freak.
“I thought he was getting special treatment,” Pyatt said this week after watching (again) as Nash completed his routine of carefully placing and folding every piece of equipment along a bench in front of his stall. “But he’s just the most organized guy on the team.”
Erasing doubts over Nash’s lack of postseason success has been a much harder task for the former No. 1 overall draft pick.
One of the few new faces when the Rangers and Washington Capitals face off in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the fourth time in five years Thursday, Nash is about to embark on the sort of journey he longed for when New York acquired him in a major offseason trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Though the 28-year-old is undoubtedly one the game’s stars, with a combination of offensive skill, size and speed few can counter, Nash has played in just one playoff series during his 10-year NHL career — a sweep at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings in 2009. He hopes to rectify that void in his hockey resume this year with the Rangers, especially since the questions about his inexperience growing a playoff beard have emerged with more frequency in recent weeks.
“It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out,” Nash said of his postseason naiveté. His only successful playoff run came in Switzerland during the 2004-05 NHL lockout. “I’ve only had four playoff games and it’s been a tough part of my career. … I’m trying to take full advantage of playing here.”
One person who won’t mention that distinction in the coming days is Rangers Coach John Tortorella. Unlike in past postseasons under Tortorella, the Rangers now possess a weapon up front to match Capitals sniper Alex Ovechkin and support goalie Henrik Lundqvist in net. Despite advancing to the Eastern Conference finals last season, New York averaged just 2.15 goals per game in the postseason.
Nash has even surprised his normally inscrutable coach, assimilating into Tortorella’s aggressive, defense-first, forechecking system while playing in every situation. And it hasn’t had an adverse effect on his offensive production. After watching his goals and points decrease every season following a career year in 2008-09, Nash was back on a 40-goal pace (21 goals, 21 assists) during this lockout-shortened campaign.
Nash said he owes the smooth transition to playing in Columbus under Ken Hitchcock, who also stressed generating offense off of a solid defensive strategy.
“I thought we got him at a good point in his career,” Tortorella said. “You appreciate more when you’re with him every day, as far as all the things he does. … He’s a pro and I mean that. No maintenance. He just wants to play, and sometimes other things come with the package of a star player. Not this guy. He just wants to play and he’s in a good spot now.”
Teammates have marveled at Nash’s skills on the ice and off it. Playing in New York brought a new spotlight, Lundqvist pointed out, and it can overwhelm some players, especially with the Rangers coming off a 2011-12 regular season in which they finished as the Eastern Conference’s top team.
“It is a different place to play, New York. For him coming from Columbus, that’s a big change,” Lundqvist said. “But a guy like that, obviously, gives us more opportunities to win hockey games. He gives us a better chance of winning the Cup. He’s one of the best players in the game and to have him on the team, it makes a big difference a lot of nights.”
Pyatt thinks about Nash in terms of how he uses the equipment that is intricately set up inside the locker room every day.
On several goals this season, the 6-foot-4 Nash has nimbly skated through the defense only to stop on a dime in front of the net, using the long reach of his stick to keep the puck away from opponents. Pyatt equated it to a center posting up in basketball.
“I haven’t seen too many players do that, but he does it all,” Pyatt said, shaking his head. “There were high expectations with the big trade and he’s delivered on what was expected of him. It’s never easy coming to a team like the Rangers.”