TORONTO – Dressed to the nines in a black tie and charcoal pea coat, Riley Nash looked comfortable in mostly unfamiliar surroundings – just as he did earlier on the ice.
“This is the biggest scrum I’ve had in a while,” he said, smiling.
That’s what happens when you’re the man who admirably fills the skates of arguably the game’s top two-way pivot.
Nash was tasked with replacing Patrice Bergeron after the Boston Bruins announced moments into warmups the four-time Selke Trophy winner (and 2018 nominee) was sidelined day-to-day with an upper-body injury.
All of the sudden, the player coach Bruce Cassidy almost went as far as calling an unknown was asked to line up between super pest Brad Marchand and super sniper David Pastrnak.
With their new centre in tow, they barely missed a beat.
The line was in on two of Boston’s three goals in a pivotal 3-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Bruins now lead the series 3-1.
“Riley did a great job,” Pastrnak said. “He’s a smart player. He’s very good defensively. It’s not easy to play with me and Marsh, especially in the D zone.”
Nash’s name won’t appear on the scoresheet Thursday, but he did contribute to the first two goals.
Blueliner Torey Krug’s wrister from the left point eluded Frederik Andersen’s blocker just 28 seconds into the game. It was Nash who provided the drive-by screen.
Nash then earned his second non-assist assist of the night on a goal that seemingly broke the Leafs’ will.
After an icing call, Nash got the better of Auston Matthews on a faceoff. Bruins defenceman Adam McQuaid fired the puck up the boards and Pastrnak got it by a pinching Jake Gardiner and was off to the races. A 2-on-1 ensued and Marchand made no mistake after receiving a pass from his linemate.
The goal, scored 10 seconds after the draw, stood as the winner.
“That was one where you just try and battle,” Nash said. “You don’t expect the outcome that we got out of that.”
Nash said he wasn’t trying to replace Bergeron, an impossible task considering Bergeron was garnering Hart Trophy consideration before he fractured his right foot at the end of February.
Instead, just like he did for a month when he took Bergeron’s place the first time, the 28-year-old was just trying to be defensively responsible to give his offensively gifted wingers a chance to do their thing.
If there was pressuring playing with Marchand and Pastrnak, Nash didn’t show it on the ice – or in the dressing room.
“They had the opportunity to play with me,” he said, in jest, correcting a reporter’s line of questioning.
It’s that nature and simplicity that allowed Nash to have a career-best season with 15 goals and 41 points. It also left Cassidy with no reservations about moving him up in the lineup again.
“He’s really elevated his game as it’s gone along,” Cassidy said. “Some of that has been opportunity. He’s played with Marshy and Pasta.
“He’s had more of an opportunity to play in an offensive role. It’s always been in him. It’s up to the player to bring in out. It’s up to the coaching staff to put him in positions if the situation dictates. We met halfway on that. It’s worked out well.”
Nash felt his game could have been better. He was especially frustrated he was on the wrong end of a play that led to the Leafs tying the game seven minutes after the Bruins opened the scoring.
Leafs winger Mitch Marner stripped him off the puck along the boards, which quickly led to a Tomas Plekanec goal.
“That took the wind out of my sails a little bit,” he said. “That’s just a reminder to me that the little things matter.”
But that was his only blemish of the night.
Nash and his linemates weren’t the only Bruins to put forth strong performances. Captain Zdeno Chara and rookie Charlie McAvoy continued to give the Matthews line fits. Fellow freshman Jake DeBrusk was relentless on the forecheck and scored the insurance goal in the third period – his second of the series.
It was a game the Leafs simply had to have. Down by one in the best-of-seven matchup, on home ice, getting a reprieve from an elite centreman – that’s must-have territory.
Instead, with the fill-in efforts of Nash, it was the Bruins who claimed victory.
“It’s baptism by fire,” he said. “You’re thrown in there and you’ve gotta get it done.”
Get it done he did. And because of that, the Bruins are heading home looking spiffy with a chance to close out the Leafs on Saturday.