After a two-day hiatus for some Olympic material, it's back to report card time for the Blueshirts. Today, it'll be the New York Rangers' second line of Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard, and Benoit Pouliot on trial.
What Ranger has been better than the little big man so far? No forward, that's for sure. Zuccarello has obliterated any and all expectations there were for him headed into the season, leading the Blueshirts in points with 43, and tied for second with 15 goals. The hope entering the year was that with Alain Vigneault in town, the Norwegian would finally have a fighting chance to prove he belonged, but not even the most cockeyed optimist foresaw Zuccarello having this great an impact. Ask anyone who follows the Rangers, and they'll almost unanimously say The Hobbit has been the Blueshirts most valuable player up front. His impact goes far beyond the scoresheet though. Zuccarello is a spark plug–an in-your-face player who has never met a man he's willing to back down from, despite his small stature. It's his ability to fire up the team with his inspired play, as well as his statistical impact, that makes Zuccarello so valuable. A
Brassard has been as advertised: A smallish, skilled center, capable of making some pretty plays with the puck, but one who will never live up to his lofty draft status (6th overall in 2006). He's Pierre-Marc Bouchard 2.0, right down to the French-Canadian heritage, or Tim Connolly with a better hairline, if you prefer. Brassard will probably never do enough for the Rangers to validate being the primary piece sent by Columbus in exchange for 40-goal scorer Marian Gaborik, but he is useful–especially of late. The 26-year old enters the Olympic break on a 6 game point streak, with 3 goals and 5 assists over that span. If he can stay hot, Brassard may be able to eclipse the 50-point mark for the first time in his career–he's on pace for 47, which is coincidentally his career high. The Québécois greatest impact continues to come on the Rangers rejuvenated power play–he's tied for the team lead with 15 PP points–where his ability to move the puck shines. B
Pouliot has come a long way since Alain Vigneault remarked early in the season that the talented winger has a tendency to go to "La Lune" (the moon) during games. After a disastrous start to his Rangers career that saw him notch just 2 goals in his first 29 games, Vigneault has found a way to reach the space cadet, who has responded with 9 goals and 18 points in his last 28 games. That's pretty good production for a forward who still averages under 13 minutes per game. Pouliot does a solid job using his lanky frame to screen goaltenders, and has good enough hands to finish in close, especially on the power play, where his 6 goals is tied for the team lead with Chris Kreider. Considering how big of a bust he appeared to be the first quarter of the season, Pouliot's renaissance has been a surprise–but certainly not an unwelcome one–and if he keeps it up, it might be enough to earn the 27-year old pending UFA a new contract in the offseason. B
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