Brassard’s first career playoff hat trick leads Blueshirts past Lightning to force Game 7

Say it with me folks. How many by show of hands thought they would ever see this team score seven goals in a postseason game? How many believed they’d see a Blueshirt post a hat trick? If you said yes, you’re probably either the most optimistic fan or completely delusional.

Either way, both happened as the Rangers once again won an elimination game. Derick Brassard’s first career playoff hat trick highlighted a big 7-3 win over the Lightning in Game 6 to force a deciding Game 7 back at MSG on Friday.

There’ll be a seventh game at The Garden thanks to a total team effort from the goal out. Yes. That included a few clutch stops from Henrik Lundqvist in a nervy second period with the Bolts threatening to tie it. Before a wild and unpredictable third as crazy as this Eastern Conference Final has been, it was the Blueshirts nursing a one-goal lead. After former Ranger Ryan Callahan cut it to 2-1 from Anton Stralman on the power play late in the first, the Lightning came hard. Even though they only outshot the Rangers 13-11, it was misleading. The Rangers were sloppy with the puck allowing Tampa to generate some quality chances.

That included another opportunity for Callahan, who was denied this time by Lundqvist. His best save coincidentally came when he stoned Brian Boyle on an odd-man rush shutting the door. Lundqvist stopped all 13 Bolts shots in the period en route to 36 saves in improving to 15-3 in elimination games since Game 6 versus Ottawa in 2012. He also improved to 7-0 in Game 6 or 7 over his last seven appearances making 228 saves on 238 shots (.958 save percentage). He’ll need to be even better on Friday as will the whole team.

Indeed, it was Brassard’s night. He admitted to NBC’s Pierre McGuire following the win that he was disappointed in himself last game. Tonight, he more than made up for it posting a hat trick and two assists for five points. His linemates weren’t too shabby either with J.T. Miller scoring a huge goal at the start of the third to go with three assists for his first career four-point game of the postseason. Rick Nash also factored in scoring what proved to be a key power play goal along with three helpers for a playoff career best four points. The top line played like it combining for 13 points (5-8-13) and a plus-13 rating with Brassard going plus-five.

They set the tone early with Brassard getting to Ben Bishop just 3:36 in when he took a Miller feed and faked before tucking home a backhand five-hole for his first of the game. The play was made possible by a hustling Dan Boyle, who chased down a loose puck keeping it in at the blueline and firing it down low for Miller who passed for Brassard for the goal that quieted Amalie Arena.

The Lightning responded by getting eight of the next nine shots. However, they were unable to beat Lundqvist who was razor sharp early with a remarkable stop on Steven Stamkos from in tight. After he picked them up, Nash and Brassard combined to set up Keith Yandle for a goal that increased the lead to 2-0 at 15:30. Off a strong cycle especially by Brassard, he patiently held onto the puck before passing for a vacated Yandle who fired a long wrist shot that deflected off a Lightning player past Bishop. Originally, it was credited to Miller who was in front but later correctly changed to Yandle.

Trailing by two, a big Stamkos hit from behind on Ryan McDonagh went undetected. Reacting to it, Chris Kreider delivered a big hit but then lost his poise giving Stamkos an extra crosscheck which resulted in an undisciplined minor penalty. Stamkos also went off when he exchanged crosschecks with a incensed Derek Stepan, who was bloodied. It was nice to see them stick up for McDonagh but Kreider’s penalty was miscalculated because it allowed the Bolts to go on the man-advantage.

Without Stamkos, the Lightning had no trouble thanks to a great outlet from Anton Stralman sending Callahan in for a breakaway goal with him getting the better of Lundqvist by going to the backhand top shelf. It was his first postseason goal for the Lightning. Indeed, Callahan played his best with a chance to play for the Stanley Cup. Many of his inexperienced teammates didn’t. He also had an opportunity in the second but was denied by the pad of Lundqvist.

The second was all about the goalie. With his team struggling due to a relentless Lightning attack, Lundqvist came up big. He was the reason they still led by one entering the third. At that point, I just wanted them to play as hard as the goalie because you could see how badly he wanted it. There were some moments in that middle stanza where you wondered if they’d try to hang on for dear life. A recipe that wouldn’t have worked.

Instead, they came out and played their best period of the postseason. They didn’t sit back opting to take it to their opponent. This is where the Rangers’ experience came through. They scored three goals in a 4:12 span to break it open. A strong forecheck from Nash resulted in Brassard getting a great chance only to be robbed by a sprawling Bishop. Staying with it, Brassard came out and centered for Miller who buried his first of the series at 3:07.

The fourth line then struck 2:58 later. Off an initial forecheck by James Sheppard that forced a Lightning turnover, Dominic Moore intercepted a pass and came in two-on-one with Tanner Glass forcing Bishop into a difficult save. The rebound caromed off a driving Sheppard’s shin into the net before it was driven off its moorings. After a video review, the goal stood with Sheppard getting his first from Moore and Glass, who finally got a well deserved point.

It escalated with a strong Nash forecheck resulting in Miller faking shot before making an unselfish play dishing across for a wide open Brassard for his second increasing the lead to 5-1. The play doesn’t happen without Nash stealing the puck away from Andrej Sustr. He showed tremendous strength. Exactly what he must repeat again Friday along with his teammates. That chased Bishop, who allowed five goals on 26 shots. He was hung out to dry by his defense who gave up on the fifth goal.

The Lightning got one back right away off a Tyler Johnson win in the offensive zone back to Kucherov, whose wrist shot beat Lundqvist cutting it to 5-2 with 12:10 left. Before that goal, the shots were 14-2 in favor of the Rangers who after the second trailed in shots 29-18. They really dominated even though Kucherov tallied twice in the third.

With Nikita Nesterov off for a slash, Nash got into the act when he scored a greasy goal on a Yandle rebound in front poking the puck past Tampa reliever Andrei Vasilevsky restoring a four-goal lead with 9:39 remaining. Prior to that, Vasilevsky flat out robbed Brassard with a ridiculous sliding stack job.

Kucherov got one back three minutes later when he took a Johnson feed off a two-on-two beating Kevin Klein to the spot before rifling one home cutting the deficit to 6-3 with 6:39 left. With Tampa coach Jon Cooper rolling the dice by pulling Vasilevsky for an extra attacker with almost six minutes left, it got dicey when Dan Girardi accidentally cleared a puck out of play for a delay of game minor. Cooper opted to go 5-on-4 for the first half but when that didn’t work due to a diligent Rangers penalty kill blocking shots including a big one from Klein, eventually he went for a 6-on-4.

As usual, the Rangers struggled to score into an empty net. They always make it harder than it has to be. Finally, a good defensive play by Brassard allowed him to gain center and fire into an open net for the hat trick with 1:41 left. A great reward for a player New York Post columnist Larry Brooks coined Big Game Brass. He always seems to show for these games and told McGuire the team loves such big games. Well, they get another Friday. Another elimination game for the chance to play for the Cup.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-J.T. Miller, NYR (1st of playoffs, 3 assists, 3 SOG, 2 takeaways, +4 in 26 shifts-14:14-a difference maker)

2nd Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (36 saves incl. 13/13 in huge 2nd to preserve lead)

1st Star-Derick Brassard, NYR (1st career playoff hat trick-team leading 7th, 8th, 9th, 2 assists, 5 points, +5 in 23 shifts-16:22-a money performance)

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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