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Leonard: Nash puts slump on ice with 2 goals in Rangers win

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TAMPA – Rick Nash has never had a night like this.

He has been a star in the NHL for a long time and has scored 378 career regular-season goals, including a career-high 42 this season for the Rangers. But his postseason scoring woes had reached such discouraging depths prior to Game 4 on Friday night – at seven goals in 56 all-time matches and just two in 15 games this spring – that it was no longer accurate to call this a slump.

This was who Nash had become: A star scorer who turned into just another forward when the bright lights turned on.

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What’s funny about that is that Nash, who turns 31 years old on June 16, does not stand out in the locker room. He is down-to-earth normal. He has spoken in recent years of understanding that at some point hockey will end, and when that happens, he’ll be ready for another phase of his life.

Maybe it’s because he is so human that he felt his failure to score for his Rangers teammates so intensely these last few postseasons, as he described late Friday in the Lightning’s visitors’ locker room after erupting for two goals and three points – both career-highs in the playoffs – to even this Eastern Conference finals at 2-2.

“It’s frustrating when you can’t score, and you feel like you let the guys down in the room and you let everyone around the organization down when you can’t produce offensively,” said Nash, he of five shots, three hits and a plus-one rating in 15:51 of ice time. “I’m trying my best to produce.”

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Trying is something Nash always does, but it’s also something that he knows isn’t good enough when he doesn’t do what Glen Sather acquired him in the summer of 2012 to do: score.

“I was telling myself to try to get to the inside, and it just didn’t seem like it was working,” Nash said of his search for a third goal in these playoffs since Game 6 of the second round against Washington. “I was trying everything I could to do it. I was trying to take pucks to the net. I was giving my best effort and it just didn’t seem like it was working.

“It’s just natural to grip your stick a little tighter and to not see the ice as well when you’re struggling,” Nash added. “The puck doesn’t feel comfortable on your stick, so anytime you can get a goal and get a little confidence, it helps.”

Confidence sometimes comes from doing what one does best. On Friday for Nash, that was his flash down the left wing onto a pass from rookie Kevin Hayes. He barreled around helpless forward Cedric Paquette to drive across Ben Bishop’s body and stuff a backhand off the post, off Bishop’s left skate and in.

“I think no matter who it was (defending me), I was gonna try and bring it to the net,” he said.

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Alain Vigneault said Martin St. Louis’ 32-second shift and change to send Nash on ice before the goal “wasn’t part of the master plan,” but the coach should have taken credit for it, because it was a sequence that ultimately might – as the Rangers’ postseason motto goes – “change the ending.”

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The goal only gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead, but because Nash was the one who scored, it was like everyone could finally breathe – first and foremost big No. 61 himself. “It’s good to see for him,” center Derek Stepan said. “This group has seen how hard he’s worked.”

This game still was up for grabs but was wrestled back for several reasons: A poised second period from a determined Henrik Lundqvist; a Dan Girardi goal-saving defensive play on a rebound; Brenden Morrow’s turnover before Chris Kreider’s go-ahead goal; and as Nash said: “We got some bounces. They had some really close plays that kind of went off our skates or just missed the net, so we’ve got to tighten that up a bit.”

Forwards J.T. Miller and Carl Hagelin had excellent nights, too. St. Louis finally broke through for his first goal of the playoffs, but that wasn’t the same thing as Nash getting on the board – not even close.

“That first goal by Nash, that’s the way he scores his goals,” Lundqvist said. “Taking the puck to the net and just show(ing) how strong he is and the speed he has. That was great to see. It kind of set the tone for us.”

“It’s amazing how much skill he has for such a big guy,” Keith Yandle said of Nash, who added the perfect finishing touch with a rebound, third-period power-play goal.

On Thursday, Nash had demonstrated some Hollywood connections by organizing a private screening of the movie “Entourage” for the team through a “friend of a friend.” He said humbly: “I thought it’d be a team-bonding thing.”

Maybe that did something to loosen up the Rangers, but on Friday, Nash demonstrated that his influence extends far past the cinema. He took center stage as the Rangers’ up-front star, their ace in the hole, their big gun.

And when he goes off, it reaffirms your confidence that these Rangers actually can go all the way.

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