After a seven-week absence necessitated by a troublesome bone bruise on his left leg, Rick Nash is finally back in the New York Rangers lineup. The star winger rejoined a team with championship aspirations just in time to provide his signature offensive flair for the late-season playoff chase.
Now comes the hard part: recapturing his world-class scoring touch.
"It's been tough to find that," Nash said. "It's the one thing that is always hardest to get back. Legs feel good. You can work on cardio when you're hurt, but the game speed and the timing is tough. The only way [to get it back] is by playing more games. It's the hands. Picking up a pass, taking a shot. A few times already in the last few games I've had some great chances. Your instincts don't take over like they usually do. It just takes time to find your hands. Get your hands to do what your brain is thinking."
Even a goal scorer as accomplished as Nash is prone to a little rust. That was evident when he returned to the lineup in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings on March 12, his first action after missing 20 games. A speedy rush down the wing in the second period ended with a shot from the left circle that missed the net by several feet. Midway through the third, a series of deft moves through the neutral zone again led to a shot wide of the net.
And five nights later in the first few minutes in a 4-3 overtime loss against the Los Angeles Kings, he had a perfect look against Jonathan Quick and missed the net by at least 5 feet. He has zero points and 12 shots in the four games since his return.
"You're definitely nervous first game back. I think you're just trying to keep it simple," Nash said. "I caught myself a few times trying to make plays where I probably should have kept it simple. A few other times, I probably should have tried to make the play. It's an in-between to find your limitations."
If Nash's body of work is any indication, it's only a matter of time before he starts scoring again. A three-time 40-goal scorer and six-time All-Star, Nash led the Rangers last season with 42 goals and 69 points, by far his highest totals since coming to Broadway in a 2012 blockbuster trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who took him first overall in the 2002 draft.
"Look at the first 66 games of last season when he was so dominant," said former NHL goalie and current television analyst Kevin Weekes, who has been tracking Nash since the winger was a teenage phenom starring in the Greater Toronto area. "He was imposing his will on opponent players nightly, shift by shift. He was playing like a man possessed.
"The key thing since he was out for an extended period is to shoot as often as possible and get to the net. Establish net-front presence. The goals don't have to be pretty."
Two years removed from a trip to the 2014 Stanley Cup finals, where they lost to the Kings in five games, the Rangers are icing perhaps their deepest lineup in years. And it's no secret whom they'll be relying on for offense come playoff time.
"He can hold on to pucks, and I think the game now gets more and more physical," Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said of Nash. "To have guys like that who can hold on to pucks and take it to the net is really important. He can definitely be the deciding factor in a lot of games. Players look up to him. He's been around a long time, and he works really hard. That's why he's that good."
But Nash's absence wasn't a total loss. It was actually a blessing of sorts. Earlier in his career, he would spend most of his time during long-term injuries playing NCAA football video games -- always as the Ohio State Buckeyes, the college team he adopted as his own after arriving in Columbus. But at age 31, Nash's video-game regimen is history thanks to his 1-year-old son, McLaren.
"I got to wake up with him every morning. It was pretty cool," Nash said of his time while recovering from injury. "That wouldn't have been time if I was healthy that I got to spend with him -- running around, chasing, changing diapers, feed him. Just spend quality time with him. It was positive. I have no time for [video games] anymore. My priorities have switched."
With Nash gone, the Rangers snagged the biggest star available at the trade deadline when they acquired center Eric Staal from the Carolina Hurricanes for prospect Aleksi Saarela and second-round picks in 2016 and 2017. The longtime Hurricanes captain joined one very familiar face in brother Marc Staal, a key component on the Rangers' blue line. But Eric Staal and Nash, who skated on a line together in Nash's first two games back, also have history dating to their childhoods in Southern Ontario.
By the time Eric Staal was drafted second overall in 2003, he had already faced Nash countless times at several levels. They also had played together on Canada's under-17 and under-18 teams and joined forces for Canada at the 2007 and 2008 World Championships before capturing gold together at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
"I'm excited to have a guy like that with his skill and his size," Nash said. "It's great. It's nice to see that we want to take steps forward and win a championship."
Barely back from an injury that cost him close to two months, Nash isn't shy about sharing this team's top priority: bringing the Stanley Cup back to Madison Square Garden for the first time in 22 years. And the Rangers have possibly never been better-equipped to do that.
Already boasting Lundqvist in net, they are deep down the middle with the addition of Eric Staal, and feature a defense corps consisting of five former or current All-Stars in Ryan McDonagh, Dan Boyle, Marc Staal, Keith Yandle and Dan Girardi, as well as a top-flight veteran in Kevin Klein.
"Nasher is a guy that can turn a game on its ear when he's at his best," Weekes said. "If Rick Nash dominates games the way he can and if Eric Staal plays at the level he's capable of playing at when he's at his best, I don't think there's any limit for the Rangers."
But any visions of a deep playoff run for Nash will have to be put on hold until he can finally get those world-class hands back.
"It's that time of year where every game means something," he said. "This is why you want to be a pro. This is why you want to be in these situations."