On a night where the sleepy play inside PNC Arena matched the dreary weather outside, the Carolina Hurricanes found themselves within a minute of securing at least one valuable point in the standings against the Winnipeg Jets.
Instead, a failed clear by the third line ended up in the back of the net. Sixty-three seconds later, the 2-1 loss was final.
Normally this is the point where everyone piles on, calling for the head of Riley Nash and begging general manager Jim Rutherford for an upgrade at third line center. Except, this time, it was the normally sure-handed Manny Malhotra who couldn’t get the puck out.
Since being moved to the fourth line, Nash has seen his minutes decrease but his production increase. His last 9 games have resulted in 3 goals, while only once has he eclipsed the 10-minute mark in ice time.
“I’m not playing as many minutes, I’m just trying to bring energy out there,” he said. “Even though we’re playing on the fourth line, it doesn’t mean you can’t contribute. I think that’s the kind of attitude that we’ve taken. Make the most of your time out there and try to make a difference.”
Initially, he did. His early third period goal tied the game.
“The puck was kind of bouncing around and it ended up in their zone. Guy poked it away from me, Bowman picked it up, and he was walking down the slot so everyone just kind of converged on him. I just waited off to the side for a rebound or a puck to squirt out.”
Putting himself in the right spot has been what’s led Nash to find the scoresheet as of late. A few games ago, against Ottawa, the Andrej Sekera show skated circles around the Senator defense, before depositing the puck to an open Nash, who had found a soft spot in the slot. He had time to settle the puck, pick a corner, and finish.
Kirk Muller’s confidence in Nash has been steadily increasing, too. Despite a quick four-goal deficit in the Tampa Bay debacle, Muller continued to roll four lines through the first two periods. In the third, his team had closed the gap, and he shortened his bench as he typically does.
But rather than Nash being the victim, Muller gave him a chance to be the hero, rotating him and Malhotra between Skinner and Lindholm for the rest of the game.
That comeback ultimately fell short, as did the minute-long attempt against Winnipeg, no thanks to a strange penalty given to Eric Staal.
“It takes me out of the game,” Staal said. “We’ve got 45 seconds to tie the game, and he makes that call and takes me out of the game. It’s a bad call. I’m pretty sure he watched the replay, I won the faceoff and got crosschecked from behind. That’s pretty much it.”
“It just stings with a minute left to give up points.”
Nash didn’t play after the 14:53 mark of the third period, but in scoring the goal, his job was done. When correctly slotted on the fourth, Nash has seen his shot-attempt differential steadily climb to over 51 percent. Against the softer competition he’s been capable of skating a regular shift without getting getting hemmed in.
With another year left on his deal at a very affordable $575,000, Nash represents one of the biggest bargains on a team stacked with a ridiculous amount of $5 million plus contracts. He won’t shoot 16 percent forever, but if Nash can contribute 8 to 10 goals a year in 8 to 10 minutes a game on the fourth line, those expensive forwards should see a positive impact on their game with lighter minutes.