"He can do everything with so much power, but at the same time he’s so calm. I’ve never seen anyone do that. Everything just looks so easy, with his reach and his power. Some shifts it looks like he’s playing with kids." - Carl Hagelin on Rick Nash
Over the course of his career (can it really be ten seasons already?), Rick Nash has faced the Washington Capitals but twelve times, the relative infrequency, of course, owing to the fact that Nash had spent his entire pre-2013 career in Columbus. Out of sight, mostly out of mind.
But if there's any lingering lack of familiarity between the now-Ranger winger and the team his current squad has faced in the post-season now four times in the last five year, it's going to fade in a hurry over the next week or two. And while their meetings over the past decade have been few and far between (fun fact: Nash was actually on the ice for Alex Ovechkin's first NHL goal - that's him turning the puck over at the top of his own zone moments before the tally), he's made the most of the opportunities, scorching the Caps for seven goals and eight assists in those games, both rates that are well above his career averages. Granted, it's easier to rack up big numbers when you're getting big help, but make no mistake about it: it's 2013 and Rick Nash is a beast, taking theoretically easy minutes and crushing them (no matter your metric of choice), en route to one of the best seasons of his career.
In three head-to-head match-ups this year, the Caps have "contained" Nash, holding him goal-less (although this one, eventually credited to Ryan Callahan, might as well have been his) with three helpers and 13 shots on goal. A closer look at some of the underlying numbers (and the shot chart), however, show that Nash more or less ran roughshod over the Caps at even-strength - his Corsi rating for the three games was +12, +7, -5, and while the samples are tiny, they're at the very least foreboding.
Martin Erat, who has faced Nash more than most Caps, given their shared years in the Western Conference, is well aware of what the seven-time 30-goals scorer is all about. "He’s got the long reach and he’s a big guy," Erat said (via the Washington Times). "He can make room for himself, and he’s always dangerous. You’ve got to be able to keep an eye on him every time he’s on the ice."
Jason Chimera, who was a teammate of Nash's the only time he and Columbus made the playoffs, echoed the sentiment:
"He likes to kind of get behind the D and go and try to get some speed. You’ve got to try to match his speed and don’t let him wind up. I think the best way to do it is play in their end and make him come the whole way. Those neutral-zone turnovers he really likes and gets going from there."
So what are the Caps to do? Well, let's take a look at what they have done. Here (via Hockey Analysis) are some numbers for every Caps skater that has been out on the ice at five-on-five against Nash for more than five minutes this season (click to sort columns):
Simple enough - Corsi-For percentage (i.e. puck possession) says match the Nash line with Karl Alzner and Mike Green and the second line, right? Seeing as he's largely eaten John Carlson alive (again, small sample), that would seem to make sense, though it's worth noting that in that last game in which Nash had a negative Corsi rating, he faced Carlson (and Jack Hillen) more than any other defense pairing. (It's also worth noting that Nash has largely eaten a lot of NHL defenders alive, including Green.) And in that game, the forward trio that Nash saw the most was Troy Brouwer, Mike Ribeiro and Brooks Laich. So swap in Erat for Laich and throw Alzner and Green out there (leaving the "shutdown" pair for the Derek Stepan line)... and pray.
There's no right answer here. There's no book on stopping Rick Nash, and there's no way one, two or five players are going to do it. It'll take a focused team effort on every shift that Number Sixty-One is out there. And, oh yeah, don't forget about the other 17 skaters. Good luck, Caps - you'll need it.