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Rangers vs. Maple Leafs preview: A healthy Rick Nash is firing on all cylinders

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We've been quick to defend Rick Nash when he was getting irrationally dragged through the mud, so naturally, it's time to heap praise on him as he excels even further.

Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

The strangest of circumstances befell Rick Nash as his tenure as a New York Ranger began. Before he ever touched the ice, Nash was looked at as a savior. With the Rangers just having been eliminated by the Devils in the 2012 Eastern Conference Final, and a lack of goal scoring at the forefront of what plagued New York that postseason, Nash was a singular solution to that weakness when he was acquired that offseason.

But then, the start of Nash's debut on Broadway was delayed, as a labor dispute pushed back the start of the 2012-13 season, creating a condensed, lockout shortened campaign.

Nash ended that year with the Rangers second round exit against the Bruins, obviously nursing an injury. This part of this story isn't worth getting into too much, but it was clear Nash wasn't at 100% when playing against Boston.

Then came last year, Nash's first shot to show his stripes in a full season to the Blueshirt faithful. But an early concussion derailed any of his momentum, and even when Nash came back, he later admitted to feeling uncomfortable.

Third time's the charm, so it would seem.

As Nash embarks on what doesn't really feel like his third season for the Rangers, the results couldn't be much better. Aside from being an incredibly effective penalty killer, and difficult player to separate from the puck, Nash has recorded three goals and an assist through the Rangers first two games. And the way Nash is finding success isn't in the ways many misguided Nash critics berated him to do so, it's been by doing what's made Nash so successful throughout his 12 year career.

All three of Nash's goals have come on wrist shots. The most recent of which, the one he scored Saturday night in Columbus, was helped in large by a strong play from Anthony Duclair, but Nash still did what goal-scorers do: He put himself in good position, and finished the opportunity.

But it was Nash's two-goal night in St. Louis to open the season that is so encouraging. Many have questioned Nash's inability to carry the puck to the net. That he plays a soft game outside of the dirty areas, and Nash will only truly be effective when he toughens up and operates closer to the crease.

Hosh posh.

War on Ice, a fantastic new hockey statistics resource you should all check out, among its many functions, tracks players shooting percentages from different areas of the offensive zone. These "hextally" charts, as they have named them, serve as hockey's heat map. And while many assumed a return to form for Nash would mean finding his scoring touch around the blue paint, historically that hasn't been the case.

Nash sh% absolute
Nash sh% rel

The two charts above catalogue Nash's shooting efficiency from different areas of the offensive zone from 2008-2011. The top one contains Nash's combined shooting percentages, while the bottom one shows how successful Nash has been relative to league averages.

And what's important to note here is, while Nash has been good in front of the net (which should be expected from most goal scorers), where Nash separated himself in the past was in that shooter's spot in the left slot, the same area scored from twice in that game against the Blues.

That was a spot of production that dipped in the 109 games Nash played before this season began for the Rangers. Nash was still an effective scorer, finding the back of the net at a clip as fast as anyone in hockey, but his shots from the outside weren't yielding as many goals.

Even with that strong scoring pace, it didn't mean there wasn't room for improvement. Not to discount everything else Nash was doing well outside of goal scoring, and not to diminish what having an ineffective power play was doing to Nash's overall scoring totals, but it was obvious watching Nash carry the puck in off a rush, or look to goal when taking a pass in the offensive zone in a decent shooting position: Nash was inconsistent in those shot attempts from the outside.

Alain Vigneault pretty consistently stated this offseason that Nash came into camp in much better shape, and thought he was prime to put up big numbers. And now healthy, and with a pronounced, proverbial chip on his shoulder, Nash has all the motivation to succeed, and all the tools to do so.