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Stanley Cup Playoffs 2014: The line that's carried the New York Rangers

It's not Rick Nash or Brad Richards driving the New York Rangers right now, but a trio of unheralded players that have clicked at the absolute right time.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
SB Nation 2014 NHL Playoff Bracket

Sometimes in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, your stars don't have to shine for your team to have a chance to win. Sometimes your best players will get cancelled out by the other team's best players -- or worse, beaten.

Your top guys aren't always going to come out ahead for you, and if they don't, there better be players elsewhere on the roster to be the difference. For some teams -- hi, Pittsburgh! -- this can be a problem. For a team like the New York Rangers, finding production deep in the roster is part of the plan.

Just look at what they've already experienced over the first two rounds this year.

  • Rick Nash, their highest paid player and one of the highest paid players in the NHL, had one goal in his first 15 playoff games and didn't score until his 54th shot of the playoffs in a game that was already well in hand.
  • Chris Kreider, one of their best young players, was limited to just five games due to injury before making his debut in the middle of the second round. He has two goals so far.
  • Martin St. Louis, the prize of the 2014 trade deadline, has solid numbers overall but also had a nine-game stretch during which he failed to score a goal and recorded just a single assist.
  • Brad Richards had a five-game drought of his own where he also recorded just a single assist.

So how are the Rangers still winning and, after their 3-1 win Monday in Game 2, just two wins away from reaching their first Stanley Cup Final since 1994?

The play of Henrik Lundqvist in net is one big reason, but you can also point to a line of Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot that has, at times, carried the offense and the team. The line has been one of the Rangers' better and most consistent lines all season, and it seems to be playing its best hockey at exactly the right time. Not only has the line produced in the playoffs, but it has also managed to pick up the offense right when the big guns have struggled.

The numbers

It's no secret that the Rangers' power play has had its share of struggles this postseason, including a stretch of 35 consecutive attempts in which they failed to score a single goal. What's kept the team going -- aside from the play of Henrik Lundqvist in net -- has been their ability to score at even-strength. Over their first 15 playoff games, the Rangers have scored 30 goals during 5-on-5 play, and their 2.62 5v5 goals per 60 minutes is the best among the four teams still playing.

Breaking it down even further, The Rangers have received at least one goal from more than 18 different line combinations.

Only two of those trios have produced more than two goals. They scored four with a trio of =Nash, Derek Stepan and St. Louis line on the ice.

It's probably the best third line going in the NHL

The Zuccarello-Brassard-Pouliot line, however -- a line that together costs just $5.6 million against the cap, less than the individual cap hits of four different players on the Rangers' roster -- has already scored eight goals (and only been on the ice for four against), and that includes three-game winning goals.

There is some debate as to whether or not this group is New York's second or third line, but with Kreider back in the lineup on a line with Nash and Stepan, and St. Louis playing alongside Richards and Carl Hagelin, it's probably fair to classify them as the third line.

And it's probably the best third line going in the NHL.

How they were built

Two of them were selected among the first seven picks of their draft year and failed to establish themselves with the teams that drafted them. The other was an undrafted, undersized forward that didn't make a name for himself until he had a chance to shine at an Olympic tournament.

And that is the great thing about this line for the Rangers, it was pieced together over the years and they found value in places other teams have missed. That's a necessity in a salary cap league, especially when you have so much money going to Nash, Lundqvist, Richards and, next season, St. Louis.

The only headline-quality acquisition of the bunch was Brassard, who was traded to New York as part of the deal (along with Derek Dorsett and John Moore) that sent Marian Gaborik to Columbus.

The other two moves would have been easily missed.

More On The Rangers

After an impressive showing at the 2010 Olympics with Norway, Zuccarello signed on with the Rangers and struggled to make much of an impact over parts of three seasons under former head coach John Tortorella. As Zuccarello was attempting to adjust to the North American game, he had the additional disadvantage of being an undersized forward trying to fill out a depth role while playing for a coach that insisted on having guys like Stu Bickel and Mike Rupp round out his lineup.

It was a bad match. Under Alain Vigneault, however, Zuccarello has been one of the many Rangers that have bought into the system, and his career has taken off as a result. He led the team in regular season scoring and has carried his production over to the playoffs.

The third member of the line, Pouliot, has turned out to be one of the more valuable free agent signings from last summer after inking a one-year, $1.3 million contract.

Players like Pouliot fall through the cracks too often because teams look at his inability to perform as a top-six forward. They don't see much use for him as a depth player because he isn't a big, physical bruiser that can wear other teams down. But what he can do is use his speed and skill (and as a former No. 4 overall pick, he obviously has some talent) to outplay other teams' third- and fourth-liners. That has been a big advantage for the Rangers, especially come playoff time. Even if Pouliot plays 12 or 13 minutes a night, that's 12 or 13 minutes where he has an upper hand.

Pouliot frustrates teams because he takes bad penalties on occasion (like the two he took in Game 2), but he balance that out by drawing even more. He chipped in 15 goals during the regular season, and helped drive possession in his team's favor. It's hard to ask for more from a third-liner.

The line suffered a blow when Brassard was injured early in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final on a hit by Montreal defenseman Mike Weaver. He had to leave the game and missed Game 2 on Monday. But even after his exit the duo of Pouliot and Zuccarello still managed to produce three goals when centered by Dominic Moore and Richards in Games 1 and 2.

The Rangers' stars may not make the same impact that Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane make in Chicago, or that Anze Kopitar makes in Los Angeles, but the team has depth. Combine that with one of the best goalies in the NHL in a season when the Eastern Conference is short on Stanley Cup contenders, and you've got a mix for a potential Stanley Cup run.