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• Game Notes
By Jim Cerny, newyorkrangers.com
After a long off-season and a grueling training camp, the Rangers are champing at the bit to kick off their 2009-10 regular season schedule, which they will do this evening in Pittsburgh against the Penguins at Mellon Arena.
“It doesn’t matter how many years you’ve played, everyone is still tense and excited to get it all started,” Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said after the team’s practice on Thursday.
For many of the players, tonight will mark their regular-season debuts with the Rangers. Ten of the 22 players on the opening-night roster have yet to wear the Rangers jersey in a game that counts in the standings. As such, the players and coaches, though confident the team is improved over last year’s squad, still are not quite sure what to expect with so many new faces in the lineup.
“This is where the real stuff happens, and where we find out about the players,” said Rangers head coach John Tortorella. “We’d like to create a team identity as far as a high-pressure puck-control type of team. But before we have an identity, we have to do it. So we’ll see how we go.”
Tortorella took over the coaching reins last Feb. 23, and over the final 21 games of the regular season he guided the Blueshirts into the playoffs with a 12-7-2 finish. Along the way he began implementing his preferred style of play. But a full training camp of teaching has gone a long way for Tortorella to educate his team.
In addition, during the off-season the team acquired a string of players better suited to play Tortorella’s aggressive up-tempo style of hockey. That helps put the Blueshirts in a good place heading into the 2009-10 campaign.
“We’re going to have a different style, playing with more speed and more skating, so it’s a good thing to have players now that have more skill and who can skate and move the puck so well,” said Lundqvist.
Among their moves this past summer, the Rangers signed free agent forwards Marian Gaborik, Vinny Prospal, and Ales Kotalik, and traded for Christopher Higgins, Enver Lisin, and Donald Brashear. All of those forwards should thrive in Tortorella’s preferred style of play.
Gaborik, in particular, provides the Rangers something they did not have a year ago: an elite skater who is one of the league’s most dynamic goal scorers. A five-time 30-goal scorer who has notched 219 goals and 437 points in 502 career NHL matches, Gaborik has already wowed his teammates and coaches with his wide array of skills during training camp and the preseason.
“He has really quick hands, and he disguises it so well, so you just don’t know if he’s going shoot the puck or pass it,” Tortorella said of Gaborik. “This is why we got him. We feel he’s a dynamic player, and to win consistently in this league you need that game-breaker to make plays.”
While Gaborik is among a group of veteran newcomers that has impressed in camp, a pair of rookies has stood out, as well. Defensemen Matt Gilroy and Michael Del Zotto both excelled throughout the pre-season and, as a result, earned spots on the opening-night roster.
Cut from a similar cloth, both Gilroy, 25, and Del Zotto, 19, are instinctive puck rushers from the back end. Both are strong skaters who possess superior on-ice vision and high-end creative offensive flair. Since Tortorella’s system demands defensemen be involved up the ice, both Gilroy and Del Zotto -- despite their professional inexperience -- could very well thrive right away with the Rangers.
“They’ve stepped in well,” said veteran defenseman Wade Redden. “They both are real good on their feet and move the puck really well. Those things get them out of a lot of trouble, especially for young guys feeling their way here. Both of these guys have stepped in and done a great job, and definitely earned their spots here.”
Gilroy and Del Zotto are part of a growing group of younger players taking root as the foundation of the Rangers, something that excites Tortorella -- both for the present and the future of the franchise.
Forwards Brandon Dubinsky, who will likely center Gaborik and Prospal this evening, and Ryan Callahan, who is coming off a career-high 22 goals last season, are just 23 and 24 years-old. Center Artem Anisimov, 21, led the team with four goals in the preseason, while the 23-year-old Lisin netted three in the preseason. And defensemen Marc Staal, 22, and Dan Girardi, 25, are important young veterans on the blueline.
“For us, not only to try to win, but to continue to win, I think development of your own people, and giving people opportunities, is important,” said Tortorella. “We’ve got some youth in here, and I think that’s important, and it’s exciting to me. Building this foundation of youth is how you become competitive and stay competitive.”
Making the younger players and newcomers jell with Rangers veterans such as Lundqvist, Redden, Michal Rozsival, Sean Avery, and team captain Chris Drury, among others, has been an important part of the training camp experience for the coaching staff.
All involved believe that the process has progressed quite smoothly.
“I absolutely have loved the way we have practiced and come together as a team,” said Kotalik. “Now it’s up to us to go out and execute the system and make the plays in the real games, and build upon the foundation we have started.”
The “real games”, as Kotalik referred to them, begin tonight when the Rangers skate against the defending Stanley Cup champions in Pittsburgh. Tortorella said on Thursday that he wants his players to watch the Penguins’ banner-raising from the bench for several reasons.
“I think it’s a great thing for our guys to see it, especially for some of the youth on our team,” said the head coach. “And I don’t want to disrespect the league and that Cup because that is something we are looking to get to. So I think it will be something good to see.”
Following tonight’s contest against the Penguins, the Rangers return to New York to host their home opener on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden against the Ottawa Senators. That match will be followed by a tilt in New Jersey against the Devils on Monday, which concludes a three-games-in-four-nights stretch to start the 2009-10 season.
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