By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
When the Rangers need to respond to adversity they can typically count on passionate center Derick Brassard to be the catalyst.
After being blanked 3-0 in Ottawa on Sunday, the Rangers needed to bounce back quickly when they returned home to play the Buffalo Sabres on Monday.
Stuck in a five-game scoreless drought, Brassard stepped up his game dramatically, delivering a memorable two-goal, three-assist performance in the Rangers’ 6-3 victory over the scrappy Sabres. Although his five points set a new career high, the way Brassard played high-impact hockey in all three zones stood out.
“In this league you’ve got to have timely scoring,” defenseman Keith Yandle told WFAN.com. “And Brass always seems to be the guy who’s helping out in that category. He’s a key component to this team. It’s nice to see him get rewarded with a great one tonight. Like everyone on this team, he impressed me in all three zones. He plays everything hard whether he’s in his own zone, through neutral zone and, obviously, in the offensive zone, he’s one of the best. It’s fun to watch guys like that.”
Sunday’s listless performance in Ottawa caused visibly angry head coach Alain Vigneault to storm out after an abbreviated 90-second postgame press conference. Given the need for a quick turnaround and with winger Rick Nash missing from the lineup due to a bone bruise, the Rangers required a passionate response and Brassard led the way.
“You want to do the stuff he does,” Yandle said. “When you have a guy studying the game like he does, it makes you appreciate him ever more as a player. He really helps out our group.”
Vigneault understood Brassard’s desperation to put in a solid performance after the Hull, Quebec native endured a tough game in Ottawa in front of a large gathering of well-wishers.
“He had to be very displeased with his play last night,” Vigneault said. “That’s his home – with friends, family, everybody. He didn’t have a very good game. There was no doubt he wanted to bounce back. I didn’t have to tell him or the team very much before the game. Everybody knew that we had an opportunity here to go into the break on a positive note, that we didn’t play well last night and this was our chance to prove it. And I think the guys did that.”
Brassard had been sidelined with an illness last Tuesday and its lingering effects likely played a role in the usually productive center’s rough patch.
“We knew it was only a matter of time,” captain Ryan McDonagh said of Brassard’s break-out game. “You get a tough illness like that, it’s tough to get your body back to feeling the way you want to feel as a hockey player. It’s great to see him break through here before the break and obviously get some confidence back in his game and as a team understanding that he knows he’s a big impact player for us. He plays in a lot of situations. When him and Zuccy are feeling it like that, finding plays, finding seams, and using their creative ability — they’re a tough combo to stop. It was great to see him be a big part of tonight’s win.”
It was truly a monster performance Monday from Brassard, who dominated all areas of ice. In addition to his avalanche of points, he had a game-high six shots on goal, recorded three takeaways, won 11 of 19 faceoffs, and posted a plus-3 rating in 19:19 of ice time.
Brassard has overtaken Mats Zuccarello for the team lead with 36 points. There was a time earlier this season when Zuccarello was carrying the Rangers on his back and Henrik Lundqvist played out of this world between the pipes. Lately, J.T. Miller has been put together a long string of big performances and McDonagh’s game has gotten back to peak level.
Despite their inconsistencies, the Rangers sit in second place in the Metropolitan Division heading into the All-Star break. They return to action on Feb. 2 in Newark against the rival Devils. Expect a furious race for playoff positions to unfold during the final 33 regular-season games.
“I believe this is a good team,” Vigneault said. “I believe this is a playoff team. It’s hard to get into the playoffs. Once you get into the playoffs, I think we have as good a chance as anybody else. But it’s a battle. Look at the standings. It’s unbelievable how tight, how close, how hard-fought it’s going to be. But I do know we’ve got a good team and we’ve got a couple of players right now that can play better than they have and we’re working on getting them to play as well as they can.”
He continued: “I’ve got players here. My job is to make them perform up to their potential. Obviously, I can say right now I haven’t done that. I need to make sure that I get this group here to play to their full potential. We have not done that.”
If the Rangers wish to maintain their playoff pace, they’re going to need to get all their big guns firing at once.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey