Then he played the role quite well and netted the lone goal in his surging club's latest win.
Hayes broke a scoreless deadlock 3:00 into the third period, Cam Talbot made 21 saves, and the Rangers hung on to beat the Calgary Flames 1-0 on Tuesday night.
Derick Brassard forced a turnover by defenceman Dennis Wideman in the Calgary zone and made a pass from the left circle to the right circle to Hayes, who snapped in his 12th goal in his first game since cutting his long hair.
It was Hayes' fifth goal in eight games. He didn't find out that Nash — second in the NHL with 38 goals — would be sidelined due to neck spasms until he got to Madison Square Garden.
It was the first game Nash missed this season.
"I didn't even know," he said after playing on a line with Brassard and Mats Zuccarello. "I'm nothing like Rick Nash, but I was lucky enough to get a goal out there and kind of produce."
The Rangers remained two points behind the first-place New York Islanders in the Metropolitan Division race with three games in hand.
Talbot earned his fourth shutout this season and seventh in his NHL career; the Rangers lead the NHL this season with nine. He improved to 7-1-2 in place of injured No. 1 goalie Henrik Lundqvist, and helped New York win for the 10th time in 13 games (10-1-2) and third straight overall.
"We knew that they were going to come in and they were going to be a desperate team," Talbot said. "They're fighting for their playoff lives."
Karri Ramo was sharp in making 28 saves for the Flames, who fell to 0-2-1 in their first game of a seven-game trip. Calgary killed both short-handed opportunities, and has gone a team-record 12 straight games without allowing a power-play goal.
The Flames failed to receive a power play.
Calgary, which will play at New Jersey on Wednesday night, is currently on the outside fringe of the Western Conference playoff race.
"The next game is as close to desperate as we have been all season," Flames captain Mark Giordano said. "It's pretty close to a must-win game for us.
"When teams are getting points every night, you can fall out of it. We've got to stop this. We did a lot of good things but we have to have that nothing-to-lose mentality and try to take more chances. At certain times we were guilty of being too safe."
The Rangers jumped to a 6-0 edge in shots, only to be caught 6-6, and finished the first period with a 10-7 edge.
New York had the best scoring chance during a power play when Hayes struck the post. The rebound came to J.T. Miller at the right post, and with a seemingly wide-open net, he was robbed when Ramo lunged backward toward the crease to snag his shot.
"He kept us in the game with that huge glove save," coach Bob Hartley said: "He built a lot of confidence and kept us in the game. You go in the third period on the road 0-0, I'll take this."
The Flames didn't record their first shot until Wideman was denied by Talbot's pad 6:37 in. Johnny Gaudreau was also stopped on a partial breakaway after a Rangers turnover at the Calgary blue line.
The second period also produced 17 shots, with the Rangers holding a 9-8 advantage, and it took a late flurry by the Flames to boost the total.
"We played really good in front of our net," Talbot said. "We didn't give up those Grade A chances from right in the slot."
Talbot made two successive saves against Josh Jooris with just over a minute left at the end of a 2-on-1 rush, and was looking behind him to make sure the puck didn't slip into the net. That was a much better chance than earlier in the period when a Calgary 3-on-1 failed to produce a shot.
The Flames' best scoring opportunity came when Emile Poirier — in his NHL debut — got free 2:30 into the second, but was taken down by defenceman Ryan McDonagh, who wasn't penalized.
NOTES: Poirier became the 18th Flames player to make his NHL debut since the start of the 2013-14 season. He replaced LW Mason Raymond, who returned to Calgary for the expected birth of a child. ... New York C Oscar Lindberg was called up from Hartford (AHL) and made his NHL debut in Nash's place. He was returned to Hartford after the games. ... The Rangers' only penalty was a fighting major for Miller against Michael Ferland.