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Rangers' typical top tandem Brassard, Zucs off on 'D'

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Mats Zuccarello (r.) and Derick Brassard must play better away from the puck and on defense, regardless of the tougher matchups the Rangers' top scorers now draw.Julie Jacobson/AP

Mats Zuccarello (r.) and Derick Brassard must play better away from the puck and on defense, regardless of the tougher matchups the Rangers’ top scorers now draw.

FARMERS BRANCH, Texas – Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard lead all Rangers scorers with 46 and 45 points, respectively. Since 2013-14, they’ve been an inseparable pair with unmatched chemistry.

But they haven’t played together much lately, and in their three recent matches as a tandem they’ve been alarmingly off defensively: a Jan. 24 loss in Ottawa, an ugly Feb. 18 win in Toronto, and Thursday’s ugly win in St. Louis.

The question is obvious: what gives?

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“Well if you look at two years ago we played with (Benoit) Pouliot and we were considered the third line, so we were facing a lot of other teams’ third lines and third D pairs,” Brassard said after Friday’s practice at the Dr. Pepper StarCenter outside Dallas. “Last year we were the second line, facing teams’ second D pairs. Now we’re facing a lot of top lines, and with Nasher (Rick Nash) out, there’s more pressure on us.”

Brassard has a point. There is a target on these skill players’ backs. However, coach Alain Vigneault would like them to make “more high-percentage plays earlier in games” instead of taking unnecessary risks, especially since the coach is seeking lineup consistency and admitted he “probably want(s) to go back to Brass and Zucc and somebody else” as a top line heading toward the playoffs.

“Who that somebody else is going to be, we’ll see,” Vigneault said.

That somebody ideally will be Rick Nash, the team’s best two-way forward who normally balances that line while attracting attention of top defensemen.

Nash (left leg bone bruise) will sit out his 15th straight game Saturday afternoon when the Rangers (35-20-6, 76 points) visit the Western Conference-leading Stars (38-18-6, 82 points) for their final game prior to Monday’s 3 p.m. NHL trade deadline. Vigneault even indicated Nash could be out until as late as March 18, or eight weeks from his Jan. 22 injury in Carolina.

“It’s one of those bone bruises where you could probably say it’s broken but it’s a serious bone bruise,” he said. “Once all the MRIs are done then you see there’s a little something there. Initially they didn’t think, now they do. So it’s week-to-week and anything bone-wise is 4-to-8 weeks all the time. That’s the way it is.”

But the coach also had good news: a Thursday MRI revealed Nash is about 7-to-10 days away from starting lower-body workouts, big news considering Nash could be GM Jeff Gorton’s biggest deadline addition with a lack of cap flexibility likely preventing any major deals.

For Saturday, right wing Jesper Fast will be a game-time decision after breaking his nose, loosening some teeth, and losing a lot of blood when a puck hit him in practice. But Vigneault said “if the bleeding is stopped and he can breathe alright then I’ll probably just put a Marc Staal-like shield there and he’ll be good to go,.”

If Fast can’t play, defenseman Dylan McIlrath will dress as a forward for the first time since he was 15 years old playing for the Winnipeg Warriors, he told the Daily News on Friday. The red-hot Henrik Lundqvist will remain in goal, a luxury Brassard said can bail out the Blueshirts on their off-nights.

“The first period on Thursday we were in our own end the whole time but we didn’t get scored on, and that’s most important,” Brassard said. “Some teams wish they had a goalie like Lundqvist. They don’t. We do. That’s how you win those type of games. I’m not saying we should need to use him like that, but in the games we need him, he’s there.”

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