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• Game Notes
• Biron Out with Fractured Collarbone
• Rangers Hold On to Youth at Trade Deadline
By Jim Cerny, newyorkrangers.com
With the NHL trade deadline now in their rear-view mirror, the Rangers hit the first of March with six weeks remaining to decide their playoff fate for 2010-11. The stretch drive begins in earnest tonight when the Rangers host the Buffalo Sabres in an important Eastern Conference clash at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers enter play sitting in seventh place in the East with 70 points, three fewer than sixth-place Montreal and three more than eighth-place Carolina. The Sabres are on the outside looking in at a playoff spot with 65 points. However, they do hold three games in hand on the Rangers, making tonight’s game an extremely important one.
“Obviously we don’t want to just be in seventh (place),” said Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi. “We want to keep winning games and making our way up the standings. We are not thinking about who we would be playing, we are just going to try to get wins and move up in the standings.”
Coming off a 2-1 home-ice loss to the Lightning on Sunday, the Rangers have won four of their last seven games overall, although they are just 1-4-1 their last six at MSG. The Rangers are now 14-14-3 on home ice, a record the Blueshirts realize needs to be better as the team heads to the finish line.
“There’s no doubt we have to play better at home,” said rookie center Derek Stepan. “But we have to make sure we do the right things, and play the right way, both at home and on the road. There are the same two points at stake every game whether home or road, so we just have to bear down every night and find a way to get them.”
Stepan is in the midst of a season worthy of Calder Trophy consideration. The Rookie-of-the-Year candidate is the fifth-leading scorer among all first-year players in the NHL with 36 points, and he is just three goals shy of reaching the 20-goal plateau as a rookie.
The 20 year-old’s play has spiked upwards of late, as Stepan has built a strong chemistry with linemates Wojtek Wolski and Mats Zuccarello. Rangers head coach John Tortorella has gone as far as to say that Stepan’s line is the team’s “most creative”.
“One thing that makes us successful is that we are all on the same page,” said Stepan, who has three goals, three assists, and six points in his last nine games. “We all see the same play. If it comes down to two different plays that can be made, we all choose the same one instinctively. And that really contributes to the chemistry.”
Stepan has also taken up residence at one of the point positions on the Rangers’ rejuvenated power play. On Sunday he was paired on the second unit with veteran newcomer Bryan McCabe, and the two displayed impressive puck movement. McCabe augmented that puck movement with a heavy slap shot that nearly tied the game in the final seconds of the contest.
“That’s what I like about (McCabe), you can tell right away that he wants to shoot the puck,” said Tortorella. “Hopefully that will pay some dividends on our power play and 5-on-5.”
Tortorella will be coaching the same group of players that took part in practice on Monday as the Rangers did not make any trades involving NHL-level players prior to the trade deadline. In their one deal of the day, the Rangers picked up center John Mitchell from the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for s seventh round draft pick in 2012 and assigned him to the Connecticut Whale.
That the Rangers did not make another impact trade after acquiring McCabe from Florida on Saturday does not upset the coach in the least.
“I’ve always liked this hockey club, and I’ve said that since Day One,” said Tortorella. “That certainly has not altered. And I have my lineup set for (tonight), and we’ll go at it with Buffalo.”
Whether or not All-Star defenseman Marc Staal and/or veteran winger Ruslan Fedotenko will be in the lineup this evening remains in question. Both ailing Rangers returned to practice on Monday, although Staal did not take part in the full workout while Fedotenko did.
Staal has missed the last two games with a sore knee and Fedotenko was sidelined Sunday with a sore shoulder.
Marian Gaborik will miss his fourth straight game due to a concussion.
After this evening’s contest the Rangers will close-out their three-game homestand with a tilt against the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night before heading out to Ottawa for a game against the Senators on Friday.
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