The Bruins' 2013-14 season ended with a thud, followed by profound disappointment. The President's Trophy-winning B's petered out in the second round, eliminated - by the Montreal Canadiens, of all teams - in seven anemic, curiously noncompetitive games.
So you can forgive Bruins fans if they tuned out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs from there. Anyone who did, missed out on a similarly blown opportunity for the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final. They ultimately stumbled at the finish line, falling to the Los Angeles Kings in five games. And it turned out that they made it to the final round in spite of, not because of, their most talented skater.
That prized star was now-Bruins winger Rick Nash, who finds himself in Boston with a legitimate chance to get his first Cup, his best since that year in New York.
Nash came within literal inches of winning Game 5 for the Rangers, who ended up losing in double-overtime. He had an open net, and Slava Voynov just barely got enough on the puck to wobble it wide of the goal.
Close calls aside, Nash ended up with an incredible zero points in the five-game series, and just three goals and 10 points in 25 total playoff games that season. On a $7.8 million cap hit.
The New York media didn't let him off the hook.
Nash was just content to float around in a "terrible" and "pitiful" postseason. He was a colossal disappointment. Veteran center Brian Boyle, not known for his scoring touch, was described as the "anti-Nash."
If Nash disappears for the Bruins in this spring's playoffs, he won't be absolved this time, either. The B's brought him in here mainly to put the puck in the back of the net. And despite being longer in the tooth at 33 years old, playing in a relatively reduced role, and just returning from a concussion, Nash still has to do it at the rate he's done it in the past three years. If not better.
Which 'Playoff Rick Nash' Will We Get?
Nash has never been a player who consistently elevates himself and lights it up in the playoffs, so it's unfair and unrealistic to expect that. If Nash suddenly does unlock that sky-high potential that has existed since he was drafted No. 1 overall in the 2002 draft, fantastic. If not, he needs to provide a baseline of his most recent 36 playoff games with the Rangers.
In those contests, Nash potted 10 goals and added 13 assists. His 2015 and 2016 playoff runs, in particular, were actually not bad: 7 goals and 18 points in 24 games. The Rangers hardly lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins because of Nash, who scored two goals and two assists in those five games. Nash caught fire in that series on a line with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello.
Now, he finds himself flanking a similarly gifted playmaker in David Krejci, and unburdened from the expectations of a No. 1 star player. The potential is there for the ex-Ranger to regain some of that 2016 magic.
Would you be satisfied with a 20-25 goal pace for Nash in this playoff run? If the Bruins get enough out of their top line, "pretty good" could be enough for Nash to make a difference. Nash looked like the game-changer the Bruins hope he can be early in his Boston tenure, eventually leveling off with six points in 11 games. But that's not nearly enough to gauge how Nash will perform come playoff time. So the most fair way to assess him is to look at his actual playoff history.
Despite the glaringly bad 2014 campaign, the more recent games have been better. However, Nash dropped back off last season when he scored just three goals and two assists in 12 postseason games, and you could partially attribute that to how he fit in the lineup. Mika Zibanejad is certainly not the playmaker that Brassard and Krejci are, and offensively was never a great fit for Nash's skill set.
Ideally, Nash can play well with anyone. But at this stage, the reality is that he has the best chance to succeed with good set-up men at center.
Krejci, in particular, also has some recent playoff disappointments to shake off, with a chance to rekindle his magical runs in 2011 in 2013. He may very well have won the Conn Smythe Trophy if the Bruins were able to win the Cup in 2013. So there's mutual interest for Krejci and Nash to play their very best hockey against the Leafs, and hopefully beyond that point.
But for Nash, those demons lurk. Scorned Rangers fans and reporters await for their "I told you so" moments. He came to Boston for a giant haul, including three players and two draft picks. The expectation is that he plays like the marked upgrade that he is over Ryan Spooner on paper. The expectation is that Don Sweeney gave up such a big package for Nash because he's betting that he can excel when the games truly count. Fair or not, the question remains of whether they get the Nash who played well in 2015-16, or the zero-sum Nash of 2014.
The Bruins won't get their answer, of course, until the puck drops on Thursday against Toronto. And the answer could ultimately decide their fate.
-- By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].