Derick Brassard is making himself an essential Ranger

Rangers' Derick Brassard celebrates his first-period goal against

Rangers' Derick Brassard celebrates his first-period goal against the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 12, 2014. (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

PITTSBURGH - Looking back, it was a scare, not a nightmare.

Two days before the start of the first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers, Rangers center Derick Brassard left practice in Westchester County limping and holding his lower back.

Since being acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets in a trade-deadline deal for Marian Gaborik last season, former top draft pick Brassard (No. 6 overall in 2006) had been durable and dependable on a team that needed talent down the middle.

There had always been promise in his game. Scouts said Brassard had the best vision in the draft. After all, the first five selections turned out pretty well: Erik Johnson, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom and Phil Kessel.

Brassard, the Rangers' leading scorer in last year's playoffs with two goals and 10 assists, had a career-high 18 goals and 45 points this season. His loss to injury would have been a blow to the Rangers' hopes of a deep playoff run.

Brassard, 26, recovered and declared that he was 100 percent healthy, but he had only two assists in the seven-game battle with the Flyers.

"It can't go well every game," Brassard said before facing the Penguins on Friday. "Every shift, we need to battle to be rewarded. I thought our line had really good looks. We had one off game, Game 3, but I thought we came back in Game 4 and had a better game, better scoring chances, but we couldn't put the puck in the net."

Brassard hadn't scored a goal since March 30 against the Oilers, but the dry spell ended Friday night when he roofed a shot off the back bar behind Marc-Andre Fleury 3:06 into overtime for a 3-2 win.

"Good for him," said linemate Benoit Pouliot, who has developed chemistry on the ice with Brassard along with a friendship away from the rink.

Brassard, a restricted free agent this summer, appears to have found a comfort level in New York. He, Pouliot and winger Mats Zuccarello have made strong cases for new contracts. On Thursday, coach Alain Vigneault called them the team's most consistent line "since Christmas."

After the trade from Columbus, Brassard -- filling in for the departed Artem Anisimov -- put up five goals and 11 points in 13 games under former Rangers coach John Tortorella, who pushed the skilled playmaker to bang along the walls but kept putting him back into games after mistakes.

That boosted his confidence, but the real change came under Vigneault and former Columbus coach Scott Arniel, hired as Vigneault's associate coach. Arniel and Brassard had sparred while they were in Ohio, but they put their differences aside and Brassard's career was revitalized.

Unlike Tortorella, who juggled lines incessantly, Vigneault prefers stability. Credit him for sticking with Pouliot during his early-season troubles.

Despite the slump against the Flyers, Brassard -- who scored a huge overtime winner in Detroit on Oct. 26 to lift the Rangers as they ended a 3-6 opening road trip -- remained upbeat and accessible, another sign of maturity.

He appreciates that Vigneault has kept his line together on the second unit on the power play. "We just want to get set up," Brassard said Thursday. "I think everything is going to play [out]."

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