With less than a minute left in regulation, trailing 2-1 to the Dallas Stars — a sixth straight loss seemingly guaranteed despite two extra skaters — Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash received a pass from Anton Stralman at the right faceoff dot. A chorus of screams came from the Nationwide faithful: “SHOOT THE PUCK!”
But Nash waited.
He waited as RJ Umberger backed himself into Stars defender Nicklas Grossman in front of the crease. He waited as Dallas goaltender Kari Lehtonen crept to the glove side and went down in the butterfly. Then he did what he gets paid the big bucks for.
The Captain could have shot that puck through Swiss Cheese. It may have been easier than tucking it in low, stick-side through a crowd of at least three players to tie the game up with 46.1 seconds remaining in regulation.
“It was a great screen. I was just waiting for their defenseman to get out of the way,” Nash said. “I knew the goalie was cheating to his glove side — and I had that shot — but there were so many people in front and [I was] trying not to let it hit anyone.”
The Blue Jackets would go on to win the game in a shootout, with Nash and Kyle Wilson both scoring identical top shelf wristers to snap a five-game skid. Columbus goaltender Mathieu Garon came up huge at the other end, fighting the urge to come out and attack opposing shooters as they nonchalantly skated it in. Nash was asked after the game whether he had given Wilson a tip to go high stick-side on Lehtonen.
“That was all on him. I guess he just went to school. He’s a good learner,” he joked. “He saw how to do it and it was pretty much the exact same play.”
There has been a small movement — call it a campaign even — developing among Columbus Blue Jackets fans. They don’t think Nash has the leadership qualities to be a great captain. He’s too soft-spoken, not driven to win. He doesn’t have that fire like Mark Messier or the ability to make his teammates better like Steve Yzerman.
Nash’s apparently poor leadership has been the scapegoat for Columbus’ poor performances over the past two-plus seasons. When the Blue Jackets were mired in a 3-11-7 death march over November and December of last season, it was because of a lack of leadership in the locker room. Even during this past five-game losing streak, Nash became the problem because he had not torn into his teammates with a Hollywood-style gut check speech.
But with Nash, it has never been about what he says or does in the locker room. Nash didn’t have to call out anyone to get the power play to finally convert something, let alone tie the game up. He didn’t have to skate over to Wilson before the shootout to tell him where to shoot. It’s what he does on the ice, and Monday night, his performance spoke volumes.
Nash attempted to will the team to victory in the five-minute overtime period. He used his hulking frame to protect the puck for as long he could, trying to find the open man or break free from a mob of Dallas defenders just inside their own blue line, before being hauled down to the ice. Referee Stephane Auger swallowed his whistle, an egregious non-call even in overtime. Not a peep came from No. 61.
I can think of another young captain just a few hours to the east of Columbus who would have done some serious chirping for that missed call, not that Auger would have missed it in that case. Blue Jackets head coach Scott Arniel said was surprised Nash didn’t get the call in overtime.
“I don’t know what happened but Rick’s not one of those guys who complains,” Arniel said. “It’s not a war you want to get into.”
Nash acknowledged he probably deserving of a call, but spent little time dwelling on it. It was all about getting the power play getting it done — not his goal — and more importantly, getting back in the win column.
“The biggest thing was the power play coming through for us. It’s been our Achilles a lot this season and the players had to own up to it.” Nash said. “It’s just a matter of the players coming through. It’s huge to get that win.”
He may never guarantee a Stanley Cup victory. He may not blow up at his teammates and inspire a turnaround with words. He may not give you anything more than hockey cliches when he speaks to the media, because that’s not the sort of leader he is.
The Blue Jackets have the savvy veterans in Ethan Moreau, Chris Clark and Umberger to hold players accountable in the locker room. Nash does it with his stick.