TAMPA — For the past month and a half, Riley Nash has watched the Lightning from afar.
The veteran forward’s patience, however, paid off as he cracked the lineup for the first time this postseason in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final against the Rangers.
Now with three games under his skates — his first NHL action since March 20 — Nash feels like his nerves are out of the way.
“Jumping right into conference finals like that, you’re going to expect some nerves, but that was just one of the things that I kept telling myself: just enjoy it,” said Nash, who is skating in his 11th NHL season. “And the nerves are going to be there and just kind of just play with them, learn to play with them.”
Nash bounced between the Lightning and Coyotes before landing back with Tampa Bay on March 21. He then played with AHL Syracuse until April 29. Before the playoffs began, the Lightning recalled him for some center depth.
When Brayden Point sustained a lower-body injury in Game 7 of the opening round against the Maple Leafs, the team adjusted its lineup to 11 forwards and seven defensemen for the entire second round against the Panthers. But when the Lightning dug themselves into a two-game hole against New York, the coaching staff opted to switch back to a traditional lineup of 12 forwards and six defensemen.
Nash drew in for defenseman Cal Foote — a healthy scratch — for Game 3 back at Amalie Arena.
Skating on the fourth line with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Pat Maroon, Nash feels more confident with his play after a few games. Line chemistry isn’t a given, but playing with two fellow veterans has helped.
Nash specifically noted how Bellemare covers all parts of the ice, making the right reads by staying within 10 to 15 feet of the puck and covering up mistakes the line makes throughout the course of a game. Nash said it frees up him and Maroon up on the wings.
“If I can kind of do my job, those guys are all responsible players,” Nash said. “And they know the system well. If I can just kind of slot in there, read off them and do my job then, hopefully, there’s not too many hiccups out there.”
In three games, Nash has recorded four shots on goal and averaged 6:40 minutes on ice.
In Game 5, Nash took a shot on New York’s Igor Shesterkin that ricocheted off the goal post. The line has been getting some looks through three games and they hope to continue that tonight in a critical Game 6 in which the team can claim its third consecutive Eastern Conference final berth.
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“He stepped in after not playing for a month and he’s done a really good job of just filling in,” Maroon said of Nash. “It’s nice for him to take some draws when we need him to, obviously with Bellemare, but as long as we chip away, try to get some O-zone time, try not to get scored on, hopefully just try to go out there and do our job. We’ve done a really good job of that just staying focused, staying in the game and when our names are called, we’re ready.”
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