NEW YORK — Many a star athlete has fallen for the allure of shining on the world’s biggest stage. But for every Messier, Manning and Mantle, there have been countless men whose contributions are forgotten here because they did not deliver when the stakes were highest.
Eli Manning was in Madison Square Garden Wednesday night, taking in Game 4 of the Rangers-Penguins Eastern Conference second-round series from a box seat. Oh, the things the two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback could tell Rick Nash and the other eerily quiet Rangers stars — of the constant teeter-totter between incomparable ridicule and intoxicating adulation that accompanies the spotlight in this town.
Every time Nash takes the ice now, the expectations that come with his team-high $7.8 million-a-year contract are closing in around him. Nash’s playoff goal-less streak extended to 14 games in the Rangers’ 4-2 loss against the Penguins, who lead the series, 3-1, and will have the chance to clinch a spot in the Eastern Conference final Friday night at Consol Energy Center.
“It doesn’t matter what you do all year,” said Nash, who led the Rangers with 26 goals in the regular season. “It matters what you do in the playoffs when things count. Obviously, I’ve been struggling.”
Nash said that this is “by far” the most frustrated he has been as a player. And, if the Penguins are to finish off the Rangers, the lasting image for fans of the Blueshirts might be Nash, with the score tied, 1-1, in the second period, turning over the puck on a power play and falling to the ice in the neutral zone as Penguins forward Brian Gibbons skated in on Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist and left it for Brandon Sutter to poke in an easy goal.
“I tried to make a pass to [Derek] Stepan,” Nash said. “And hindsight is 20/20. I probably should have just turned up with it and kept the puck.”
Before the Rangers returned home this week, coach Alain Vigneault called out his stars, saying they needed to put on their “big-boy pants.” In the two Penguins victories at the Garden, it simply didn’t happen, and in the meantime, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin each scored goals and were a dominant presence most shifts.
Nash can’t take all the blame for the Rangers’ 3-1 hole, of course. Martin St. Louis, whom the Rangers received when they traded captain Ryan Callahan, has been such a non-factor that he was relegated to third-line duty Wednesday. There, he joined Brad Richards, who is the third-highest-paid Rangers player behind Nash and Lundqvist.
Even the return of talented young winger Chris Kreider to Nash’s top line from a hand injury — he has been out since March 24 — could not propel Nash into the goal column.
“It’s a tough thing,” Richards said. “Rick’s a human being that’s out there trying his best. He’s putting pressure on himself because he knows that’s his job to do so. In here as a team, we’re 100 percent behind him.
“This is a tough league. You can’t just go out there and score goals because someone says that you have to and fans say that you have to or media says that you have to. It’s a lot different than that. What better time for him to get on the road — not just him, all of us — and forget about these two games that could not have gone worse.”
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.