The emergence of Derek Stepan as a top center and Brad Richards' return to form after a difficult 2012-13 season gives the New York Rangers a prominent duo centering their top two lines heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Center - NYR
GOALS: 18 | ASST: 26 | PTS: 44
SOG: 155 | +/-: 2
But it has been the play of Derick Brassard which has helped put the Rangers on the fast track.
Acquired in the trade which sent Marian Gaborik to the Columbus Blue Jackets at the 2013 NHL Trade Deadline, Brassard enjoyed great success last year in his first appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, leading New York with 12 points in 12 games.
A repeat performance could help lead the Rangers past the first round of this year's playoffs.
This season, the Quebec native has only built on that great play in his playoff debut. Centering the Rangers' third line and second power-play unit, Brassard sparkled for New York. He set a new career mark for goals in a season and spearheaded the Rangers' most consistent line alongside wings Mats Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot.
While injuries and other factors have forced coach Alain Vigneault to shuffle his top two lines, Brassard's trio has enjoyed phenomenal chemistry in the past three months. Zuccarello, despite missing time with an injury, had a breakout year and was New York's leading scorer down the stretch. Like Zuccarello, Pouliot set a new career high for points and had a great bounce-back season after shuttling amongst five teams in five years.
"That line has had some really good chemistry 5-on-5 and on the power play," Vigneault said after a 4-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes on April 8. "We need them to play that way."
Brassard has been the linchpin for all of it at even strength, but he really found his place on the power play. New York's top PP unit features big-time scorers Stepan, Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis, but it was actually Brassard and the second unit which has produced the most with the man advantage. Brassard and Pouliot were tied for the team lead with seven power-play goals each. That kind of contribution on the power play could make the Rangers a dangerous team in the playoffs.
What makes Brassard potentially vital to New York's postseason success is the matchups he is likely to draw. The top line features Stepan and Nash and will draw the opposition's top shut-down unit. With the second unit featuring Richards and Carl Hagelin also drawing a strong defensive assignment, that leaves Brassard with the freedom to roam against a favorable matchup. He's been reaping the rewards of that mismatch all season.
Considering how well Brassard played in his first playoff appearance, the Rangers will be looking for more of the same in his second crack at the postseason.