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• NOTEBOOK: Sauer in Lineup Tonight
• Game Notes
• Opening-Night Facts and Figures
By Jim Cerny, newyorkrangers.com
As the 2010-11 regular season gets under way tonight with a game against the Sabres at Buffalo’s HSBC Center, the Rangers will begin to get a feel for what type of team they will be this year. And from what he has seen throughout training camp, Rangers head coach John Tortorella already has a good feeling about where the team is headed this season.
“In the pit of my stomach that’s what I like, I just see our group more together as we’ve gone through these past few weeks, and I think that’s important,” said Tortorella, who enters his second full season as head coach of the Rangers. “It’s a closer group, and from a coaching point of view, the intangibles are very important. And I think expectations are understood, as far as coaches to players and players to coaches.”
Since the Rangers missed the playoffs by one point last April, Tortorella has stressed throughout the long off-season and during training camp that the team needs to be much more consistent this year. Last season, the Rangers had a very strong start and finish that bookended an uneven few months in the middle of the year.
All throughout camp, the 16 players who return this season from last year’s Rangers roster have been in lockstep with the coach’s mantra about being more consistent this time around.
“We had stretches last year where we played real well, so this year it’s not about being better, it’s more about being consistent,” said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who is scheduled to start hs fifth consecutive season-opener for the Blueshirts this evening. “Consistency is how you get into the playoffs or don’t get into the playoffs. That’s going to be our biggest challenge, as I think it is for every team.”
Many of the returning players believe the big lesson learned last season was that each and every game and standings point is vitally important. Missing the playoffs by a single point was a bitter pill to swallow for the Rangers, but it seems to be a rallying point for this season, as well.
“I don’t ever want to feel that way again,” said forward Brandon Dubinsky, who recorded 20 goals for the first time in his NHL career last season. “It’s our job as a team to make sure that never happens to us again, that we have learned from our mistakes.”
Dubinsky is part of a young core of Rangers of which much is expected this season, along with forwards Ryan Callahan, Artem Anisimov, and rookie Derek Stepan, and defensemen Michael Del Zotto, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, and Matt Gilroy.
Tortorella and Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather have spoken repeatedly for months about the importance of the team’s young core and how imperative it has been to grow this group together.
Now, after a promising 4-2-0 preseason in which many of the younger players stood out with their solid and improved play, it is time for them to play major roles in helping the Blueshirts return to the postseason.
“It wasn’t necessarily a very active summer, but I thought it was a good summer for the New York Rangers because the kids are here,” said Tortorella. “By them staying together and being familiar with our team concept, that’s where your team starts getting better.”
To further that point, Tortorella plans to start the season with a second line centered by Anisimov, 22, with Dubinsky, 24, and Callahan, 25, on the wings. And the 20-year-old Stepan has earned a spot centering the third line between veterans Sean Avery and Ruslan Fedotenko by scoring five points (3-2-5) in five pre-season games.
If those two seemingly balanced lines can provide more scoring depth than what the Rangers had a year ago, then the opposition will have to concern itself with more than just shutting down Marian Gaborik -- who scored 42 goals in 2009-10 -- on the Rangers top line.
That and the fact that Alexander Frolov -- twice a 30-goal scorer while with the Los Angeles Kings -- is going to play on the top line with Gaborik, give the Rangers confidence in their overall offensive game.
“You can only go on the feeling you have because it is still so early, but it feels like we have a better team than we had last year, there’s more skilled guys,” said Lundqvist. “But it’s up to us to prove that we are better.”
Frolov is one of nine newcomers on the Rangers’ opening-night roster, one that currently includes two key veterans on the Injured Reserve list. Team captain Chris Drury will not be able to play this evening due to a broken left index finger, although his return to the lineup is expected in the not-too-distant future. Alternate captain Vinny Prospal, sidelined with a knee injury, is expected to miss more game action than Drury.
Despite missing two veteran leaders, the Rangers will drop the puck on their 85th Anniversary Season this evening, looking to get off to a strong start, one that could set the tone for a successful campaign.
“We want a good start, but it means nothing unless we can stay consistent, which is what we have to do,” said Tortorella.
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