Clutch Center Puts Rangers On His Back En Route To Rout Of Lightning

By Sean Hartnett
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Need a big-game performance? Better call Brass.

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When the chips are down, the Rangers can count on 27-year-old center Derick Brassard to respond in a big way. With the threat of elimination staring the Blueshirts in the face, Brassard delivered the goods on the road Tuesday night to force a series-deciding Game 7.

The 6-foot-1 center’s powerhouse effort fueled the Rangers in Game 6. Brassard made huge plays all over the ice at Amalie Arena. He finished the night with a hat trick, two assists and five points. Ten of his 11 shot attempts were on goal. He was a plus-five in 16:22 on ice.

Brassard ignited the Rangers’ top line. He, left wing Rick Nash and right wing J.T. Miller combined for six of the Rangers’ seven goals in their 7-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“Brassard’s line was obviously unbelievable,” head coach Alain Vigneault said.

Derick Brassard celebrates after scoring against Lightning goalie Ben Bishop in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals at Amalie Arena on May 26, 2015 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

Derick Brassard celebrates after scoring against Lightning goalie Ben Bishop in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals at Amalie Arena on May 26, 2015 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

It was a history-making night for No. 16. Brassard became the first player in franchise history to record five points when facing elimination. He’s also the first Ranger to collect six road goals in one playoff campaign since Mark Messier and Alexei Kovalev during New York’s fabled championship run in 1994.

Some guys are just born for it, born to produce when the pressure is dialed up the highest. Teammates know Brassard has the clutch gene in his DNA.

“Ever since he’s got here, he’s played well in those big games,” winger Carl Hagelin said prior to the start of the postseason. “You need players like that to go far in the playoffs.”

Since 2012, Brassard leads the NHL with 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) in elimination games. Alongside Messier, Brassard is one of two Rangers that has recorded 10 or more points in three consecutive playoff years.

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Just like the Messiah, Brassard sealed his Game 6 Eastern Conference finals hat trick on the road with an empty netter. Unlike Messier’s performance in ’94, Brassard did not make a “we’ll win tonight” guarantee.

When Brassard was drafted by the Blue Jackets sixth overall in 2006, Columbus possessed a franchise center in the making. Unfortunately for Jackets fans, the organization wasn’t patient with Brassard. They weren’t willing to accept the growing pains that came with his development. Out of the six players involved in the 2013 trade deadline blockbuster between the Rangers and Blue Jackets, Brassard is the only player that remains with either team.

The Rangers dealt John Moore as part of the package to land skilled defenseman Keith Yandle. Derek Dorsett was shifted to Vancouver last summer for a third-round draft pick. Marian Gaborik was essentially a one-year rental for Columbus. He was traded to the Los Angeles Kings a year later for Matt Frattin, who is no longer with the Jackets. Minor league journeymen Steven Delisle and Blake Parlett are no longer in the Columbus organization.

While watching Brassard come through time and time again, Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and the Jackets decision-makers must be kicking themselves for letting Brassard slip through their fingers. He’s matured into an excellent two-way center for the Rangers.

“As he gets older, his game matures,” Rick Nash said earlier in the playoffs. “More than the points and the goals and stuff, his defensive game impresses me a lot, too.”

Brassard’s two-way effort was evident on Miller’s third-period goal. Brassard forced a turnover by harassing Steven Stamkos in the Rangers’ end. He then connected on a long-distance pass to Nash, kept the play going in the offensive end and assisted Miller.

MILLER CONTINUES TO SHINE

Unlike the Jackets, the Rangers are being rewarded for their patience with a first-round pick that endured growing pains in Miller. Over the years, Rangers GM Glen Sather could have easily spun off Miller in a package to land veteran talent.

Miller’s game is blossoming during the 2015 playoffs. He has arguably been the Rangers’ best performer over the past two games. The 22-year-old finished Game 6 with one goal, three assists, four points and was a plus-four in 14:14 TOI.

With Mats Zuccarello still unable to rejoin the lineup, Miller has provided the vision and creativity needed on the top line. He has certainly proven he has what it takes to justify his first-round selection and the Rangers’ faith. Miller looks like he’s capable of being a top-six forward for years to come.

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