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‘Challenged’ Ranger Brassard excelling on big stage

Don Brennan. (ERROL MCGIHON/Ottawa Sun)

By Don Brennan, Ottawa Sun

New York Rangers centre Derick Brassard celebrates his goal during the first period of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final of the 2015 NHL playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 26, 2015. (Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports)

New York Rangers centre Derick Brassard celebrates his goal during the first period of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final of the 2015 NHL playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 26, 2015. (Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports)

NEW YORK - 

The first time Derick Brassard remembers being “challenged” to raise his game, he was with the Drummond Voltigeurs of the QMJHL.

After a second intermission conversation with coach Dominic Ricard, he scored a pair of goals in third period. Oh yes, and then the overtime winner.

The last time Brassard was “challenged”, the results were even more dramatic and of greater significance.

Alain Vigneault asked him, and Derek Stepan, to step up and be difference makers prior to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but the following morning the Rangers coach was reluctant to share details of the chat.

“I would always prefer that those conversations stay between a player and a coach,” Vigneault said at the team hotel in Tampa. “Sometimes players get a little excited after a big win and they share things. They saw it as as a challenge, but it was more like ‘this is the reality, and this is what we need you guys to do.’ And they’re both very professional. They both understood what I was talking about, and it wasn’t that big of a deal.”

But the outcome was enormous.

While taking 10 shots on goal, Brassard had the first hat trick and five-point night of his career. No wonder he showed up a little late for Wednesday’s media availability. He had to be exhausted after pouring every ounce of his energy into raising his game.

With him at one end and Henrik Lundqvist at the other, they lifted the Rangers into a Game 7 Friday night at Madison Square Garden.

“It was just one of those nights,” said Brassard. “I was in the right place at the right time. My teammates gave me some really good plays, and I’m just going to try to bring it in Game 7.”

Brassard, the 2006 NHL draft’s sixth overall pick and a Columbus Blue Jacket for the first six seasons of his career, is right to share the credit. His linemates, Rick Nash and J.T. Miller, both chipped in a goal and three assists.

But Nash knew who was holding the hottest hand and he tried to get the puck to his centre whenever he could.

“It seemed like he was possessed right from the start of the game,” said Nash. “You could tell he was around the puck, he was forechecking, and he was finding himself open a lot off the back door. He was working for his opportunities.

“Since he’s come to New York, he’s really turned into a premier centre.”

Since he’s come to New York, Brassard has wanted to be the go-to guy. He has craved the pressure. He has dreamed of leading the team to victory when it needs him most.

And with the Rangers first playoff hat trick since 2007 -- and their first in an elimination game since Mark Messier’s historic three-goal night in the victory he guaranteed against the New Jersey Devils 21 years ago -- Brassard rose brilliantly to the occasion.

“I play with a lot of emotion, and I think at this time of the year that’s what it takes to make a difference, a lot of passion and emotion,” he said.

“I played four years in the league before I got my first taste of the playoffs, and I think I really enjoy playing at this time. There is nothing better than playing in New York in front of those fans and playing on a good team.”

Especially when he remembers the dreary days as a Blue Jacket.

“I had a hard time in Columbus, but I stuck with it,” said the 27-year old native of Hull, Que. “I came here to New York, and they showed me a lot of confidence right away, and I think it really helped me to adjust to a new team and come here and have some success.”

Stepan used the word “phenomenal” to describe the Brassard line in Game 6.

“Brass is a guy that, this time of the year, seems to really be a big part of our team,” said Stepan. “He always seems to raise his game when the game has more importance to it. It was great to see he played at a really high level, and we’re going to need that line to do it again.”

The coach might want to “challenge” the whole team on Friday.

“In Game 7, you need different guys stepping up,” said Vigneault. “And hopefully we’ll have more than one.”

STARTS AND STOPS: Vigneault thought Chris Kreider should have “turned the other cheek” rather than take an extra penalty after Steven Stamkos got away with nailing Ryan McDonagh into the boards from behind. “I think 90% of the people watching that hit … the numbers are there -- five, six strides, face into the boards,” said Vigneault. “But you’ve got to play through that at this time.” … Brassard received a lift at the end of Tuesday’s morning skate when injured friend Mats Zuccarello joined him and Martin St. Louis on the ice after the others had left. “Zuc came on the ice with a big smile, and I think that actually kind of helped me to have a smile on my face a little bit,” he said … The Rangers are paying extra attention to Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman. “There’s definitely a plan for the dynamic players on how to play them,” said Vigneault. “He is one of their great players, one of the best in the league. So we definitely have a plan we’re trying to implement, but it’s not easy against that skill level.” 


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