Rick Nash suffers a left leg bone bruise but needs to find his rhythm.
ANAHEIM — Alain Vigneault already was facing pressure to find four consistent forward lines with chemistry when Rick Nash returned from a 20-game injury absence last Saturday in Detroit. So the coach tried Nash and Eric Staal together against the Red Wings and Penguins on Sunday, seeking a spark.
A grueling schedule with four games and two back-to-backs in six days, however, added another hurdle to Nash’s quest to regain his form. So that is why, with just 13 games left entering this Wednesday-Thursday back-to-back at Anaheim and L.A., Vigneault reunited a line that he knows has worked in the past: Nash, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello.
“It’s not an ideal schedule to get a guy who had that (left leg bone bruise) injury to find his rhythm in back-to-back games, but that’s what we have,” Vigneault said of Nash before facing the Ducks. “I figured I might as well put him back with two guys he’s had a lot of success with.”
Nash skipped Tuesday’s practice at Honda Center and rode the bike instead because he was experiencing “a little bit of soreness,” his coach said, but would be ready for Wednesday’s game. Nash was one of the Rangers’ leaders preaching urgency after Sunday’s disappointing defeat to the Pens.
“When it’s coming down to these games you’re playing against teams that are desperate,” Nash said. “It’s going to be playoff hockey from here on out and you just can’t afford to make any mistakes. But for a reason (why we’re not playing well enough)? I don’t have one. I’m not sure.”
The question, though, isn’t really whether Nash will function well on this line, even if he was uncharacteristically deficient defensively playing with Brassard and Zuccarello in December. Normally, Nash is the two-way conscience of the line, a steadying presence that complements the high skill of the other two.
The bigger mystery is whether Brassard and Zuccarello can rekindle their typical chemistry that has been strangely off much of this season, which is why Zuccarello has played so often with Derek Stepan lately.
The Norwegian’s stretch pass to Brassard on a power play in Buffalo on March 8 set up the first goal scored on a goalie by either Brassard or Zuccarello on which the other had the primary assist since Jan. 11. That was a drought of 24 games with both forwards in the lineup.
Zuccarello admitted after that win over the Sabres: “I don’t think both me and Brass have played well enough together. We know that.”
Zuccarello is the Rangers’ top scorer (53 points). Brassard is their leading goal scorer (25 goals), second in points (51) and first in power-play goals (eight), which he has been rattling home lately to bolster an improving man advantage.
What Vigneault needs now is for Nash’s 200-foot diligence to rub off on the others away from the puck, and for Brassard’s and Zuccarello’s playmaking to get Nash involved on offense in order to ready the Blueshirts for the playoffs.
After all, the Rangers (85 points) entered Wednesday’s night game in third place behind the Islanders (85 points) since the Isles have one game in hand. The wild-card Penguins (82 points) keep charging, too. It’s time for Vigneault’s top forwards to hit the gas.