By Sean Hartnett
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Derick Brassard is elevating his game at a time when the Rangers need a boost. Losing all-situation center Derek Stepan for at least a month was the last thing the Blueshirts needed, especially with the NHL schedule turning fast and furious as the festive season nears.
At the earliest, Stepan is projected to return in the last week of December — just after Christmas. The 25-year-old center suffered two broken ribs in Boston on Nov. 27 and at the time was ruled out for up to six weeks.
“It’s hard to replace a guy like him,” Brassard said. “With the way he plays the game, we’re missing a lot. But when injuries happen, it opens up opportunities for some other players and we have good depth in our team. Us four centers, we’re taking more responsibility. Step kills penalties and plays on the power play. We just have to step up and I just try to play my game.”
Brassard is softening the blow of the Rangers losing one of their most indispensable pieces. Over the last four games, he has collected three goals and two assists, with the 28-year-old center recording four or more shots on goal in each game.
Since losing Stepan, head coach Alain Vigneault has frequently juggled the forward lines in search of chemistry. The new-look Kevin Hayes-Brassard-Mats Zuccarello line seemed to hit its stride as the game went on during Sunday’s 4-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators.
Brassard, a Hull, Quebec native, scored one of his two goals on the power play. The Rangers’ man-advantage unit is really clicking at the moment, as it features good movement and enough bodies in front to take away the opposing goalie’s vision. Over the past nine games, the Rangers have converted a sizzling 30.8 percent of their power play opportunities (8-for-26).
“We made plays,” Brassard said. “We had a really good first period and the special teams were partly the main reason. It gave us some momentum. We’re just trying to move the puck around. When the guys are up to take some shots they took them and we got some good screens in front of the net and it’s what we are trying to do every time.”
Brassard is firing on all cylinders at a moment, picking up the slack while the Blueshirts adjust to the loss of two stabilizing presences in Stepan and defenseman Kevin Klein. Brassard’s 20 points rank second on the Rangers, trailing only Zuccarello. Of his points, 19 have either been a goal or a primary assist.
“He’s a guy who brings it every night,” defenseman Keith Yandle said of Brassard. “He plays lots of minutes; he makes guys better.”
The Rangers will begin a three-game Canadian road trip on Wednesday with a stop in Vancouver. Brassard said the Blueshirts could use some time away from Madison Square Garden.
“I think this road trip is going to be good for our team, just to get away, just hanging out with each other,” Brassard said. “Our only road trip was Colorado/Phoenix, so it’s going to be good to get away for a week. We wanted to win the game before our road trip to Western Canada and just have that good feeling for a couple of days, travel with the team and know we got the job done.”
The Blueshirts currently sit second-place in the Metropolitan Division with 39 points, one point behind the Washington Capitals, who have played two less games, and two ahead of the Islanders, who have played two more. A successful road swing could be the catalyst for the Rangers to really kick their season into gear.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey