The Pittsburgh Penguins and fans are finally getting to see the top line center who squashed their seasons in 2014 and 2015 as a member of the New York Rangers who made it to the Stanley Cup Final and Eastern Conference Final. For the first time since the Penguins made the splashy move to acquire Derick Brassard last February, Brassard is healthy and embracing his role.
We’re all finally getting a first-hand look at “Big Game Brass”.
Make no mistake, the Penguins are playing important November games for the first time since 2015. The team was in the midst of circling the drain and in the bottom of the Eastern Conference when Brassard returned from a three-week injury absence, six games ago. Sidney Crosby was hurt and the Penguins season was suddenly darker than Pittsburgh weather.
Brassard returned with something to prove. The Penguins have points in five straight games and three wins in their last four. The team finally has the three top-notch centers pressuring opponents from the middle.
Brassard, 31, plays with speed and playmaking creativity. At 6-foot-1, 202 pounds he also plays with an edge. Brassard was not credited with a hit against the rough and tumble Winnipeg Jets but television replays certainly showed a couple. Brassard and linemates Bryan Rust and Zach Aston-Reese were driving offensive possession but not getting scoring chances, Tuesday.
Enter Phil Kessel.
“(Brassard) is a really good offensive center iceman. When we play (Kessel) there, we’ve got a third line that really isn’t a third line,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan.
The Penguins flipped Kessel and Rust, moving Rust to Evgeni Malkin’s line and Kessel to Brassard’s line for the third period. Kessel set up Zach Aston-Reese for the game-winning goal with just over five minutes remaining.
“(Brassard with Kessel) gives us a lot more balance and I think it makes it a more difficult matchup challenge for our opponents,” Sullivan said.
The Penguins crave that balance the Brassard-Kessel pairing would bring to the lineup. With Tanner Pearson filling the net on the second line and dragging Malkin into a north-south game, the Penguins again have the ability to move Kessel off that line.
However, previous attempts to pair Kessel and Brassard did not go well. There was some sort of friction late last season when Kessel was moved off Malkin’s line to play with Brassard and Kessel’s play bottomed out in the playoffs. Brassard as well did not adjust to being a third line center without top power-play time but a greater share of defensive zone starts.
The intense pivot also played through an undisclosed injury last season of which GM Jim Rutherford said, “made it difficult to play hockey.”
Brassard was so eager to exceed the contributions (and limits) of a third line center, after last season he asked Sullivan about moving to left wing. As PHN noted after conversations with Brassard this season, he was ecstatic when that move finally happened. But more bad luck befell Brassard who was injured during a three-assist game in Calgary on the Penguins dominant western Canada road trip.
Brassard returned six games ago in Ottawa, as a second line center because Sidney Crosby was out with an upper-body injury. The Penguins losing streak combined with the Penguins need for Brassard, lit a fire within the center.
Despite a nearly blank stat sheet, Brassard has been a force for the Penguins. The center has been well into the positives with scoring chances and shot attempts (Corsi). Beyond any statistical measurement, Brassard has been a driver for the Penguins in their hour of need. He’s flashed that big game intensity and determination.
He’s helped drive his team to wins. Again.
With respect to Rust and Aston-Reese, Brassard began Tuesday night with linemates who had a combined two goals. Brassard left the game Tuesday with a new linemate who is one of the most prolific American born scorers of all-time and the Penguins left with the hope their lineup could finally find the balance Mike Sullivan craves.
The Penguins left Winnipeg which is a notoriously raucous crowd with more than a win against a top team. They left with a growing sense of optimism, balance, and some big game brass. Finally.