A Magical Butt Goal and the Redemption of Rick Nash

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It was only five months ago that Madison Square Garden erupted in boos every time Rick Nash touched the puck. The Rangers were facing the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4 of the second round of the playoffs, and late in the second period, with the score tied, New York went on a power play. Nash fired a sloppy pass across the middle of the ice, it fell into enemy hands, and the Penguins netted a shorthanded breakaway goal. Nash was jeered throughout the whole third period after that, but it wasn’t really the turnover that pissed off fans the most.

Rick Nash is a scorer. In his second year in the NHL, the one right before an entire season was lost to a lockout, he tied for tops in the league in goals with 41. For most of his career, he has been reliably good for 30 a season, give or take. Since he was drafted first overall in 2002, only four players have more regular-season goals than he does.

But Rangers fans that night in May didn’t care about Nash’s distant history — or, if they did, it was only because his past successes annoyed them further when contrasted with his more recent play. The Rangers were competing in their 11th playoff game of the season, and the guy who’d been brought in to score goals had done so exactly zero times in that span.

And so, the boos.

“This is a tough league,” said Nash’s former teammate Brad Richards after the game, “and you can’t just go out there and score goals because someone says you have to, because the fans say that you have to, the media say you have to — it’s a lot different than that.”

Goals are, of course, the whole point of hockey, the currency, the … goal. As such, the context or circumstances surrounding each one are often forgotten, overlooked, or flat-out ignored. Life’s a journey, not a destination, sure, but no one cares much about a puck’s many travels unless and until they lead it straight to the back of the net. And when they do — when the goalie sprawls in vain and the lamp gets lit and the arms get raised and the “f’in rights, boys!” gets hollered — we ascribe special significance to the occasion and search for meaning.

Sometimes there isn’t meaning, though. Sometimes a puck just bounces off a buttock.

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This past Wednesday night, Nash’s ass redirected a Derick Brassard shot past Detroit Red Wings goalie Jonas Gustavsson, giving the Rangers a 1-0 lead and Nash his 10th goal just 12 games into the season. It’s been a heady start for the 30-year-old, who is now second in NHL goal scoring behind only Anaheim’s Corey Perry. The same fans who booed him just a few months ago now stand up in anticipation every time he gets the puck.

This has, of course, caused many observers to try to pinpoint the reason for Nash’s resurgence. He’s a new father! He’s hanging out in front of the net more! He’s slimmed down! He’s got great chemistry with Marty St. Louis! All of these things are true,1 they’re just not necessarily any more explanatory than how Nash himself described the phenomenon to ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun:

The puck’s just finding me … I go to the net and the puck bounces right there. The first couple of games, I didn’t shoot it where I aimed it but it still goes in. It’s a funny game. I’ve always found in my career, when I’m cold, I’m cold; when I’m hot, I’m hot.

It may not be the most satisfying explanation, but it’s the most forthright. In his short time with the Rangers, Nash has gone through these peaks and troughs before. When he first joined the team in 2012, he scored three goals in his first 14 games before contributing six in the next five. (Asked during the latter spell what had changed to make Nash so confident, then-coach John Tortorella shut down the line of questioning: “He’s been confident since day one.”)

Last season, Nash, who missed nearly six weeks early on with a concussion, scored four goals in November, three in December, and then 11 in January. But even during his scoring slumps, he was generating plenty of chances — last season, the rate of shots he attempted per every 60 minutes of ice time was the highest of his career. He was just having, as they say, some bad puck luck. These sorts of prolonged droughts can happen to the best of ’em: Ryan Getzlaf scored on just 5.9 percent of his shots in the 2011-12 season, a rate half of his career average of 11.6 percent. What can also happen is the opposite: an unsustainably on-fire spell, like the one Nash is in right now. (Just ask the Chicago Blackhawks, who signed Bryan Bickell to a handsome four-year contract off the strength of a flukey-good Cup run in 2013, never to see such production again.)

To give you some further idea of the randomness of goal scoring, note that in the same game when Nash scored the butt goal, he was also robbed by Gustavsson on this perfect grade-A opportunity:

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The whole sequence reminded me, somewhat eerily, of Game 5 of the past season’s Stanley Cup final. After being booed off the ice in New York during their semifinal Game 4 loss to Pittsburgh, the Rangers rebounded to beat the Penguins in seven games. In the next round, another win over the Montreal Canadiens, Nash scored three goals.

Then, in double overtime of Game 5 of the Cup final, against the Los Angeles Kings, Nash very nearly became the hero: With Jonathan Quick way out of position, Nash had plenty of space and immediately shot at an entirely open net. With this goal, the series would move back to New York for Game 6, where Nash would this time get a hero’s welcome rather than a Bronx cheer.

But the puck somehow caromed, ever so slightly, off defenseman Slava Voynov’s last-ditch outstretched stick. It wasn’t much, just enough to alter the trajectory and send the puck skimming past the net. There would be no Game 6: The Kings won the Stanley Cup later that night. When you’re cold, you’re cold. We’ll see how long Rick Nash can stay hot.

Filed Under: NHL, Rick Nash, The New York Rangers, Hockey, Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings, Bryan Bickell, Chicago Blackhawks

Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes