NHL playoffs: At long last, Brassard looks like a star

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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CHUCK MYERS | MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS
Derick Brassard, right, was a key player while making his playoff debut against Washington.

It was on April 3 that Derick Brassard pulled a blue shirt of a different tint over his shoulders and began to push his career to new heights.

Traded from the Blue Jackets to the New York Rangers just hours earlier, Brassard on that day became a player unfamiliar to the fans who had watched him for six up-and-down seasons in Columbus.

The former first-round draft pick, who never quite lived up to expectations, set a high bar in his home debut at Madison Square Garden.

He had a goal and three assists in a rousing 6-1 victory over mighty Pittsburgh, endearing himself to fans and coach John Tortorella.

That bar, previously stuck at frustratingly intermediate heights, has since been raised again — and cleared — by the 25-year-old Quebec native.

“He has grabbed a hold of it here,” Tortorella said after a victory in Game 4 of a seven-game, first-round playoff series against the Washington Capitals. “He has stepped in here and tried to make a difference, and he has made some big plays for us.”

The soft-spoken Brassard has become a star while making his postseason debut in glitzy Gotham. After collecting 11 points in 13 regular-season games with the Rangers, he erupted for nine points in the final five games against Washington.

“It has been a lot of fun,” said Brassard, who was once a healthy scratch eight times in a 12-game span under former Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel.

Only back-to-back shutouts by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist in Games 6 and 7 eclipsed the contributions of Brassard, who had the only goal in Game 6.

“He has been great,” Rangers forward and former Blue Jackets teammate Rick Nash told reporters during the first round. “Just seeing him grow up from a first-round pick and to come to this … it’s unbelievable.

“You always knew he had it in him.”

Brassard has played at a point-per-game pace for the Rangers after never collecting more than 47 points in a season for the Blue Jackets.

“It’s not that unbelievable if you knew the kind of player he was in junior (hockey),” said Brassard’s agent, Allan Walsh. “This was the way he played, game in and game out, in his draft year.”

But the creative, play-making style of Brassard — all bobs, weaves, pivots and, yes, turnovers — was stymied in Columbus.

It wasn’t the fault of the organization or the player, Walsh said, but rather the circumstance of playing for a team with little margin for error.

“There hasn’t been a lot of success since he has been in Columbus, and teams like that are playing a certain way to try to win that isn’t necessarily conducive to the type of player he is,” Walsh said. “Now he’s in a situation where he has free reign to be creative and not be worried about making a mistake and being benched for a period or two.

“He’s able to play as a free spirit.”

That’s not to say Tortorella is suddenly a new-age nurturer. He tolerates mistakes because the Rangers are starved for goals.

Nash, who led the team in regular-season goals, had none in the first round. Brad Richards, a slumping star center whom Brassard supplanted, had one.

The seventh-seeded Rangers open an Eastern Conference semifinal at Boston tonight. They likely wouldn’t have made the postseason if not for the acquisition of Brassard and defenseman John Moore from the Blue Jackets.

They, along with firebrand forward Derek Dorsett, arrived in a trade for winger Marian Gaborik on deadline day.

Moore was needed to help fill the void left by a serious facial injury to Marc Staal. Moore has since become a top-four defenseman after playing on the third defensive pair for the Blue Jackets. With the Rangers, he even runs the power play at times.

Dorsett returned from a fractured collarbone suffered on March 7 for Game 2 against Washington, and he has remained in the lineup, bringing his definitive bite and fast becoming a fan favorite in New York.

Game 1 against the Capitals marked the playoff debuts for Moore as well as Brassard, who was injured when the Blue Jackets made the playoffs in 2009.

smitchell@dispatch.com

@smitchcd

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