PITTSBURGH - When playmaking center Derick Brassard came to the Rangers from Columbus in the Marian Gaborik trade in April 2013, he arrived after seasons of scoring 36, 47 and 41 points with the Blue Jackets. In his first full year on Broadway, he posted 45 points. This year, at 27, he collected a career-high 60.
However, asked Tuesday about the biggest evolution in Brassard's game, coach Alain Vigneault pointed not to his offensive skills, but his defensive growth and hockey sense.
"He's become a very dependable two-way player," Vigneault said. "His knowledge of the game has really improved, his confidence . . . He's going up against all the top lines in the league and he's doing a real good job for us. We needed that evolution and we got it from him. It's probably the process of a normal young player that's got a lot of upside offensively but needs to learn how to become an effective NHL player. And that's what Brass has done."
Now that's Mats
In Game 3, Mats Zuccarello had five shots, eight hits and two blocked shots. Brassard was asked if his linemate "seemed to come alive."
"I don't think he was dead before that," Brassard deadpanned. "But yeah, playing away from the puck, he's always solid on the forecheck. He's competing really hard. When you're an offensive player and you're not on the scoresheet, you have to find something else. He's getting involved and he wants to win and that's the same Zuke that I know since I'm here."
Malkin: 'I feel OK'
Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins' 1A star after Sidney Crosby, has gone 13 games without a goal, and in Game 3, he finished with no shots on goal.
That led to questions after practice Tuesday if his balky back still bothers him.
"I feel OK, it's nothing bad," he said. "I know I'm not happy with my game right now . . . I can change my game a little bit better. It's time to stay positive. Every game I feel better, but I'm not really having my game right now."
Coach Mike Johnston tried a positive spin but admitted he wants and needs more from the Russian center.
"He still has to direct more pucks at the net for me," Johnston said. "He's a three- or four-shot guy a night and that's what he has to be on a regular basis. As far as handling the puck, getting in on chances and doing a good job in our zone, he's been progressing every single game. He's just on the verge of breaking through."
Vigneault, asked if Malkin looked like himself, said: "Malkin doesn't play for my team. We're watching him on tape very closely."
St. Louis eager
Rangers regulars weren't required to skate Tuesday with the players who didn't play in Game 3 at Consol Energy Center, but Martin St. Louis was on the ice. "I guess I just love the game," said the 39-year-old right wing. "I'm just trying to make sure I'm ready to go tomorrow. Everybody prepares themselves in their own way. To me, it's such a loose skate, you feel like you're on the pond almost, and that's a fun place."
20 minutes for Boyle
Defenseman Dan Boyle played 20:02 on Monday, perhaps his most consistent game of the series. "I thought he played a good game," Vigneault said. "I thought he was very competitive one-on-one and that's what we expect of him."
The Rangers (2-for-14 in the series) were 0-for-2 with shuffled power-play units, including one group with four forwards, not three, and Boyle. "It's a different look. We're just trying some different things," Brassard said. "It's up to us, the players, to make it work. I think it's going to come. We just have to relax and not think about it."
Klein likely to rest
Defenseman Kevin Klein, in the stretch run of recovering from a broken arm, skated and shot with a few players -- St. Louis, Cam Talbot, James Sheppard and Chris Summers -- but without taking any contact, is a presumed scratch again for Game 4. One reporter wondered if the way the Rangers defense had played, Vigneault didn't feel a need to rush Klein back. The coach's response? "I can tell you as soon as he tells me he's ready to play, he's playing."
With Neil Best