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• Game Notes
• Zuccarello Called Up for Tonight's Game
By Jim Cerny, newyorkrangers.com
The official midway point of the 2010-11 season is still more than a week away for the Rangers, but coming out of the Christmas holiday break, the team believes that the second half of the season actually begins with this evening’s contest against the Islanders at Madison Square Garden.
With that, the Rangers’ players and coaches believe that it is time for the club to raise its collective level of play so as to meet all of the extended challenges for securing a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“Things are only going to get tougher and other teams are going to be better, so we have to be better in the details of our game and we have to stay consistent in the mindset of our game,” said Rangers head coach John Tortorella. “As it keeps on going through here, it just ratchets up, and we have to stay on top of ourselves to make sure we continue to get better as a team.”
Through 36 games, the Rangers currently sit in seventh place in the East with 42 points, eight more than a pair of teams tied for ninth. They are 20-14-2 overall, with 12 of those wins coming on the road, equaling the Penguins for the league lead in that category. After a slow start at home, the Blueshirts are now 8-8-2 at The Garden, including a 3-1-1 mark over their last five games on home ice.
Perhaps even more important than the numbers is the impressive hard-working identity the team has forged over the first half of the season, even despite a rash of injuries that has seen the club already lose a total of 109 man-games.
“It’s back to work, and it only gets tougher from this point,” said defenseman Steve Eminger. “Teams have figured out how they play and what is going to make them successful, so the second half of the season is always tougher.”
To kickstart this next stretch of hockey, the Rangers will receive a boost to their lineup tonight with the return of star right-wing Marian Gaborik, who sat out last Thursday’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Lightning due to a sore groin.
Gaborik took part in practice on Sunday after spending the previous five days off ice receiving treatment -- including acupuncture -- for his groin muscle. After the hard-skating workout, Gaborik seemed confident that he’d be ready to go against the Islanders.
“I feel pretty good, and we’ll just see how it feels (Monday),” Gaborik said following Sunday’s practice. “I’ve had experience with this before so I know how to maintain it and manage it, so I should feel even better (Monday) and be ready to play.”
Tortorella said following Sunday’s workout that he fully expects Gaborik to be in the lineup against the Islanders, and that he is looking for the Slovak sniper to regain his consistent scoring touch.
“We just have to get Gaby back in and get him in the right frame of mind and have him succeed so he can feel good about himself,” Tortorella said of Gaborik, who has nine goals in 22 games this season. “He needs to be a big part of our team because he adds so much skill to our lineup. So we need to keep him healthy and have some good things happen for him.”
Another skilled winger will be reinserted into the Rangers lineup tonight, as Mats Zuccarello has been recalled from the Connecticut Whale of the AHL. Zuccarello impressed in his NHL debut last Thursday against the Lightning, and then was returned to the Whale immediately after the game.
After playing for the Whale in a 4-0 win at Bridgeport on Sunday afternoon, Zuccarello was called back up to the Rangers, where Tortorella has already stated emphatically that the talented Norwegian will be in the lineup for this evening’s contest.
“I thought he played well (against Tampa Bay) and I thought he handled all the situations we put him in,” Tortorella said of Zuccarello. “He ups our talent level on our club. We have to give him another look based on the game he played.”
While Gaborik and Zuccarello are both expected to be in this evening’s lineup, one player who will not be playing tonight for the Rangers is defenseman Michael Del Zotto. The second-year blueliner did not play Thursday because he was suffering from a stomach virus.
Despite the fact that Del Zotto is feeling better, he will not play this evening because Tortorella believes that Matt Gilroy played a strong game in Del Zotto’s absence last week and deserves another crack at being in the lineup.
“This year it’s been up and down for (Del Zotto),” said the head coach. “I know he’s going to be a big part of our core. He’s a good kid and he’s a good player, but he’s been inconsistent, so we have to make decisions accordingly. We feel right now, and after the way (Gilroy) has handled himself, that we’ll play the same six (defensemen) against the Islanders and then we’ll see where we go from there.”
Although playing a bit better of late – including a 4-1 win over Montreal on Sunday night -- the Islanders are tied for the fewest victories in the National Hockey League this season. That, of course, means nothing when these two New York rivals meet, because the Islanders always turn up their level of play when they see the Rangers on the other side of the ice.
With every available two points vital to their goal of reaching the post-season, the Rangers say that they will be ready for anything and everything the Islanders come out with tonight.
“The fans stir this one up a lot because it’s been a rivalry for a long time,” said Eminger. “But we’ll be geared up no matter who the opponent is. It doesn’t matter the record, first place, last place, or even what team we are playing. This is the second half now and we need points because every point is huge for us.”
Following tonight’s clash with the Islanders the Rangers open up a three-game road trip on Wednesday with a contest against the Devils in Newark. From there they head to the Sunshine State, where they will face the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday and the Florida Panthers on Sunday.
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