‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello are the ingredients that form a magic concoction on New York Rangers’ most consistent and dominant forward line.
The Rangers are stocked with the star power of Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and Brad Richards — and are in the process of getting legendary winger Martin St. Louis on the right track. Yet, the Pouliot-Brassard-Zuccarello line has stood out as the Blueshirts’ best in both even-strength and power play situations.
“As a line, we try to make a difference,” Brassard said earlier this season. “(Zuccarello) been really good all year. I really enjoy playing with him and Benny. Every day I enjoy even practicing. We have a lot of fun. He’s someone who has a lot of passion.”
Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault deserves a lot of credit for putting Pouliot, Brassard and Zuccarello together. Few saw this kind of production coming from the trio ahead of the 2013-14 season. All three players could conceivably break their career bests in points. Zuccarello has enjoyed a breakthrough season, while Pouliot and Brassard are close to setting new career highs.
On Tuesday night, Zuccarello eclipsed Espen Knusten as the Norweigan to score the most points in a single NHL season with No. 54. Pouliot tied his career-high of 32 points by scoring a first-period power play goal. With five regular games remaining, Brassard needs five points to surpass the 47 he collected during the 2010-11 season in Columbus.
ZUCCARELLO PROVING DOUBTERS WRONG
Prior to this season, Zuccarello was viewed by many as an ineffective fringe player due to his lack of size and inability to lock down a permanent role under John Tortorella’s teams of yesteryear. Before this season’s breakthrough campaign, Zuccarello bounced between the minors, European clubs and part-time duty with the Rangers.
Zuccarello has opened eyes. He’s won over critics by demonstrating that his game is much larger than his diminutive size would suggest. The 5-foot-7 Norweigan combines all-out effort with remarkable vision. He’s willing to get his nose dirty in front of the net and can produce flashy passes with his magic stick.
Before arriving in New York, Brassard and Pouliot were accused of failing to live up to their billing as top-six draft picks. Each lacked the consistency required to make full use of their apparent natural abilities.
BRASSARD’S GAME IS GROWING; HE MIGHT BE ONLY SCRATCHING HIS FULL POTENTIAL
After six seasons in Columbus, the Blue Jackets dealt Brassard to the Rangers ahead of the 2013 trade deadline. Brassard found immediate success in Manhattan, as he notched 11 points in 13 regular season games following the trade, then went on scored 12 points in 12 playoff games.
Through 76 games in 2013-14, Brassard has set a new career high with 18 goals and has tallied 25 assists. There’s a sense that the 26-year-old center isn’t far from putting it all together and becoming a dominant player in this league. Rangers fans are impressed with what he’s accomplishing now, but he might only be scratching the surface of his full potential.
Brassard is blessed with exceptional skating abilities, and his vision and scoring touch are improving with experience.
Most importantly, Brassard is desperate to succeed.
“I want to make a difference this year,” Brassard said during training camp. “I’m just going to try to bring my game.”
And he has since arriving in the Big Apple.
POULIOT HAS FINALLY FOUND A HOME IN NEW YORK AND MUST BE RE-SIGNED
There was plenty of promise when Pouliot was selected fourth overall by the Minnesota Wild at the 2005 NHL Draft in Ottawa. The only forwards drafted before him were Sidney Crosby and Bobby Ryan.
Only 27, Pouliot has bounced from the Wild, to the the Montreal Canadiens, to the Boston Bruins, to the Tampa Bay Lightning and finally to the Rangers.
Throughout his career, Pouliot had garnered a reputation for being a frustratingly inconsistent. Pouliot went on a 14-game pointless drought. Vigneault attempted to wake up his game by scratching him ahead of a December 7 game against the rival New Jersey Devils.
“Ben’s been given a real fair opportunity, and hasn’t played to ours and his expectations,” Vigneault said at the time.
From that point forward, Pouliot has caught fire. Zuccarello and Brassard providing the flash and the dash on the Rangers’ most dominant line. Pouliot is the rugged, glue guy who holds the line together with his newly assertive approach.
Once considered wiry and lazy by critics, Pouliot has learned to use his 6-foot-3 frame to cause traffic in front of net and win battles for the puck.
“He’s been playing awesome for us,” Brassard said earlier this season. “He’s a big body, he skates well, he goes to the front of the net, he wins a lot of pucks and he’s been doing a really good job at it.”
In the summer, Glen Sather wisely took a low-risk, one-year, $1.3 million roll of the dice on Pouliot. It’s a decision that has paid off big-time for the Blueshirts.
It’s of importance for Sather to re-sign Pouliot given his successful contributions. Why break up a good thing?
Sather understandably has plenty important tasks to address in the offseason. One of them is keeping the Pouliot-Brassard-Zuccarello line intact for seasons to come.
The each of the trio’s contracts are expiring at the end of the season and are each due a raise. Pouliot is an upcoming unrestricted free agent, while Zuccarello and Brassard are both restricted free agents.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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