The Rangers line of Rick Nash, J.T. Miller and Derick Brassard, here with defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi (l. to r.) lights up the scoreboard in Game 6.
TAMPA – Triplets, meet the Blue Chips.
That can be the name of the Rangers’ new big-game line of former NHL first-round draft picks Rick Nash, Derick Brassard and J.T. Miller that carried Tuesday night’s 7-3 Game 6 blowout of the Tampa Bay Lightning, combining for five goals and 13 points to outclass Tampa’s beloved top unit.
“It was just one of those nights,” said a beaming Brassard (five points), who reaffirmed his status as a postseason star by scoring the first hat trick of his 536-game career – regular season or playoffs – in an Eastern Conference finals elimination match.
Brassard (sixth overall, Columbus, 2006) – the first Ranger ever to have five points in an elimination game – then revealed the intriguing genesis of Tuesday’s offensive eruption, beginning with his harsh reflections and criticisms on his own virtually invisible Game 5 performance.
“I was disappointed in the way I played last game,” Brassard said of the 2-0 shutout Game 5 loss at the Garden. “It was a pretty bad, s—– feeling (Monday), and I just tried to step up here for the team … “I didn’t play an A-game (in Game 5). I was OK. I was nothing special. We lost 2-0 at home. I just felt like I had to step up tonight. I was not happy.”
As Brassard beat himself up, the finishing touch was a Tuesday morning meeting in which head coach Alain Vigneault “challenged” Brassard and fellow center Derek Stepan to lead the team to victory in Game 6.
“We had a little meeting and he just challenged us to be a little better,” Brassard said. “Since I’ve been playing hockey in junior, every time I get challenged like that I always try to answer, and I was already hard on myself, and that kind of got me more mad this morning.
“But Step has been playing outstanding,” Brassard added of Stepan, who had been great in Game 5. “It’s always a challenge for us to play against superstar centers, and we’re almost there. We just have to dig in a little bit more to reach our goal.”
Complementing Brassard, Nash (first overall, Columbus, 2002) and Miller (15th overall, 2011) rattled off a goal and three assists apiece, the first time in franchise history three Rangers have recorded four or more points.
The line factored into six of the Rangers’ seven goals, and it was a good thing they dominated. Because Kevin Hayes’ line with Carl Hagelin and Martin St. Louis incredibly failed to put a single shot on goal, and Stepan’s line with Chris Kreider and Jesper Fast put just two pucks on Lightning goalie Ben Bishop.
Miller fed Brassard to juke a shaky Bishop for the game-opening goal 3:36 in on the Rangers’ first shot of the game. Brassard made a swift offensive zone entry and registered the primary assist on Keith Yandle’s second goal of the playoffs at 15:30 for a 2-0 lead – with Nash getting the secondary helper and Miller creating a screen.
Miller scored his first goal of the playoffs to make it 3-1 at 3:02 of the third period after Bishop made an initial save on Nash and a highlight-reel save on Brassard, but Brassard stayed with the play and hit Miller in front.
“He’s been excellent,” Nash said of Miller. “Since he came on our line he’s opened up a lot of ice, plays hard, in hard areas, hard minutes, doesn’t back down any checks.”
Brassard noted Miller has “energized our line” since joining the unit late in Game 3, occupying the slot that used to belong to the now-injured Mats Zuccarello and remained unsettled through trials of St. Louis and Hayes in that spot until Miller received his overdue promotion from the fourth line.
“His attitude for the past two weeks, he’s been working really hard,” Brassard said. “I can remember the day when I was saying (J.T.) is really close to making a difference here and being on the board. And Rick was a beast.”
Brassard made it 5-1 at 7:14 by smacking home a firm, slick fake-shot pass from Miller with a secondary assist from Nash after a forceful takeaway from Andrej Sustr and a drop-pass. Brassard added a late empty-netter at 18:19.
“That second goal Brass scored today, yeah I passed it over to him but Nash makes the whole play happen,” Miller said. “He stole the puck, beat the guy there, outmuscled him, left it. If that doesn’t happen, there’s no play. That’s what he does. He’s an animal.”
Nash remained humble, knowing a loss in Game 7 on Friday night could undo all of this exciting mojo.
“I think we’ll enjoy tonight and get back to work tomorrow,” he said. “It’s one game and it doesn’t matter what you did. It only matters what you’re gonna do. We’ve got to move on to the next one and not sit on this too much.”
That’s refreshing perspective, but it’s still worth celebrating that the frequently-criticized Nash has three goals and seven points in the last three games, and that Brassard’s line didn’t just put on their big boy pants on Tuesday night.
They pulled the Lightning’s down.
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