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Leonard: Brassard should be least of Vigneault's concerns

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In the words of teammate Rick Nash, Derick Brassard proves he's a 'premier center' with his hat-trick performance in Tuesday's Game 6 win over the Lightning.Mike Carlson/Getty Images

In the words of teammate Rick Nash, Derick Brassard proves he’s a ‘premier center’ with his hat-trick performance in Tuesday’s Game 6 win over the Lightning.

TAMPA – Two days before his franchise’s biggest Game 7 since 1994 and the second-largest Game 7 of Vigneault’s decorated NHL career, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault was sharp and unrelenting when others might have relaxed the reins or breathed in the satisfaction of winning Game 6.

He was in a surprisingly unenthusiastic mood Tuesday night despite his team’s 7-3 thrashing of the Lightning to stave off elimination. Then on Wednesday morning at the team’s Tampa hotel, Vigneault couldn’t hide his irritation over varying issues.

There was his unsatisfied reflection on Lightning captain Steven Stamkos’ boarding of Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh in Game 6, which Vigneault referred to as “the non-call.” And Vigneault also engaged in some light but constant chastisement of hat-trick scoring and five-point center Derick Brassard.

The coach was bothered by what he considered Brassard’s tidy arrival to the 9:30 a.m. media availability, and he was disappointed his player had shared details of the coach’s private motivational Tuesday meeting with Brassard and Derek Stepan.

“I would always prefer that those conversations stay between a player and a coach,” Vigneault said. “Sometimes players get a little excited after a big win and they share things.”

On Brassard’s whereabouts, Vigneault quipped: “Guy gets one good game and he’s late.”

All in good fun, but it was also a direct message from the coach: Don’t take your eye off the ball for one second. Don’t forget for an instant the focus required to win on Friday night.

Vigneault’s command of this team is fascinating to watch. He is the boss. What he should be worried about, though, is not whether Brassard is in the right frame of mind. The center of the Rangers’ Blue Chips line of former NHL first-round picks is – as linemate Rick Nash said Tuesday – a “premier center.”

Vigneault instead should be concerned about the lopsided Game 6 shot totals of his four forward lines: 18 for Brassard’s line, five for Dominic Moore’s unit, two for Stepan’s line, and zero for rookie center Kevin Hayes’ trio.

Brassard’s line dominated for five goals and 13 points, and Stepan has been a big-time player on a line that has carried the team plenty of nights. But the Blueshirts are getting absolutely nothing from Hayes’ line right now, while their fourth line has been up and down.

The 12 forwards’ impressive attention to detail defensively in the neutral zone Tuesday was key to their Game 6 victory, but if Vigneault doesn’t start getting more productive minutes from more guys early in Game 7, he could end up shortening his bench quickly.

Speaking of adjustments, Vigneault for whatever reason refuses to change up his power play, continuing to feature Martin St. Louis and Dan Boyle on a top unit with Brassard, Stepan and Kreider.

Of all the things Rangers coach Alain Vigneault has to worry about ahead of Friday's do-or-die Game 7 vs. the Lightning, Derick Brassard has to be on the bottom of that list.Corey Sipkin/New York Daily News

Of all the things Rangers coach Alain Vigneault has to worry about ahead of Friday’s do-or-die Game 7 vs. the Lightning, Derick Brassard has to be on the bottom of that list.

Not only is the second group more effective – featuring the red-hot Keith Yandle, Ryan McDonagh, Nash, J.T. Miller and Hayes; it is absolutely ludicrous not to keep the even-strength Blue Chips line of Brassard, Nash and Miller together on the man advantage, as Vigneault almost resisted to his team’s peril in the second period of Game 6.

Still, Vigneault frequently pushes the correct buttons and tends to draw production out of players with patience. He was being a diligent X’s and O’s taskmaster on Wednesday, reminding his players that “there are some direct plays … that we know we need to make against this team to have success.”

Meanwhile his core players continue to demonstrate through the years under John Tortorella and now Vigneault that they – for whatever reason – live for elimination games (15-3 since 2012, and 4-0 this postseason).

“We always talk about our core group just relaxing and playing the game,” Stepan said Wednesday. “We have a group that, the way our personalities work, we just somehow find a way to have the right mindset going into these games … (And in) elimination games, your biggest player sometimes has to be your goaltender … I think the core guys – and the core guy – kind of lead the charge.”

Yes, Lundqvist holds the key to everything, but other variables can aid the Rangers’ cause, which continues with a noon Thursday practice in Greenburgh.

Friday’s Garden crowd cannot be the fair-weather Game 5 attendance that waited for something to go wrong and then lost interest the second Valtteri Filppula gave Tampa a 1-0 lead 13:29 into the second period. The fans must be a help, not be a hindrance.

Also, call it superstitious, but even though injured forward Mats Zuccarello (likely concussion) remains out indefinitely, Vigneault should let him take the ice briefly Thursday and Friday morning with his teammates to lift spirits – as he did when he made a surprise appearance Tuesday morning at Amalie Arena.

“Zucc 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,” Brassard said of his Norwegian buddy’s impact on him prior to a five-point night.

Brassard, in fairness despite his coach’s ribbing, actually showed up on time to his Wednesday interview; it’s just Vigneault, Stepan and Nash arrived a few minutes early. Still, when Vigneault concluded his presser and noticed Brassard waiting his turn at the back of the room, he ended with: “Is Brass awake yet?”

The coach found the answer to that question, though, loud and clear in Game 6. The question is whether the Rangers’ fans and some of Brassard’s forward friends will join him and the Blue Chips in taking Tampa down on Friday night.

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