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Leonard: Rangers need more out of 'marshmallow soft' Nash

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Rick Nash is again struggling in the postseason, credited with just two hits Thursday night and just one goal through six playoff games.Corey Sipkin/New York Daily News

Rick Nash is again struggling in the postseason, credited with just two hits Thursday night and just one goal through six playoff games.

Rick Nash was so dominant this regular season that he had at least one point in 29 of the Rangers’ first 39 games. He did not go scoreless for four straight games until early March and controlled both ends of the rink every night.

Every night.

Entering the NHL All-Star break, he was a leading candidate for league MVP. Through about 65 games, he couldn’t be stopped. He finished with a career-high 42 goals. He swept the Rangers’ team awards.

So this may be oversimplifying the matter, following Thursday night’s devastating 2-1 loss to the Capitals in Game 1 at the Garden, but if Nash is going to be this quiet in the postseason — again — while Alex Ovechkin barrels his way through and around the Rangers for Washington, this could be a much earlier summer than anyone had imagined for New York hockey.

Thursday’s shortcomings weren’t limited just to Nash, but coach Alain Vigneault was pointed in his response to a question about Ovechkin’s two-point night.

“He played a great game,” Vigneault said. “There’s no doubt that one of my focuses is going to (be) getting my top players to play at a top level, and Washington obviously had players tonight that played a real strong game. And we’re gonna need to do that.”

In other words, it’s time for Vigneault’s supposed stars — particularly Nash — to put on their “big-boy pants.” Remember last spring? That’s exactly how the Rangers coach called out the line of Nash, Martin St. Louis and Derek Stepan preceding Game 3 of their second-round series against the Penguins.

That’s the same postseason in which Nash scored just three goals in 25 games, including none in the 14 games of the first two series against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. He scored three times in the Eastern Conference final against Montreal, but again couldn’t finish once in the Stanley Cup Final against the Kings, despite playing his best hockey of the entire playoff run in those five draining games.

Fast forward to this second-round series with the Caps. The top line is now Nash at left wing, center Derick Brassard and St. Louis on the right wing in place of the injured Mats Zuccarello, who could be out for the entire series and longer with a likely concussion sustained in Game 5 of the first round.

Thursday night, Nash drew a first-period penalty on Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik, who was charged with making No. 61’s night a nightmare. Nash’s line also created the Rangers’ best scoring chance of the first two periods: St. Louis fed Kevin Klein for a shot on Braden Holtby 10:15 into the second period, Nash poked the puck loose at the crease and Holtby just barely steered Brassard’s jam attempt wide with his left pad.

But what did Nash have to show for it? A rip job at second intermission from former Islanders GM/coach Mike Milbury, that’s what. Milbury crushed Nash as “marshmallow soft” and concluded with a plea to Nash: “Show me something for cryin’ out loud!”

Milbury is prone to hyperbole, of course, but Nash was credited with just two hits and still has just one goal in six playoff games — a meaningless finish late in the Rangers’ 4-3 Game 2 loss to the Penguins in the first round.

Thursday night, he had three shots on goal; his line finished with 10 and none got by Holtby. They all also were party to the Blueshirts’ 0-for-2 power play, which often is a complete drain on this team’s momentum, just as it was a year ago.

Nash wasn’t the only top player who didn’t deliver. Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh wasn’t at his best, as evidenced by a second-period turnover under pressure directly to Ovechkin in the high slot, which led to a whistler off the crossbar. Chris Kreider was active and assertive but couldn’t finish. He also remains stuck on one goal in these playoffs.

Around the roster, Dan Boyle unsurprisingly was the guilty party on both Capitals goals, although his turnover before the game-winner came after a nasty Nicklas Backstrom hit. Young forward J.T. Miller worked his butt off but failed to cover Joel Ward at net front on the game-winner.

Still, it comes down to the top guys.

Nash may have said or done something noteworthy, but if he did, it was too quiet to be noticed.

And from watching him all season, we know that’s nothing close to his all-world best.

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