By Sean Hartnett
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Blueshirt fans are intrigued by the prospect of seeing two elite NHL stars paired together on the same line tonight when the New York Rangers travel to the Prudential Center to face the New Jersey Devils. In the second meeting between the Hudson River rivals in three days, the Rangers will be dressing free agent coup Brad Richards and scoring ace Marian Gaborik.
The pairing of Richards and Gaborik can give the Rangers the sort of first line output last seen during the 2006-07 season when top linemates Jaromir Jagr and Michael Nylander combined for 179 points. That kind of scoring punch is something the Blueshirts have lacked ever since. The fact that only one Ranger cracked the 50 point mark last season proves why the addition of Richards was desperately needed.
Brandon Dubinsky led New York with 54 points although it should be pointed out that both Gaborik and newly-installed captain Ryan Callahan would have each easily eclipsed 50 points if healthy. Overall, the Rangers required another proven a point-getter as they ranked 16th in NHL scoring in back-to-back seasons.
Considering the firepower found inside the Atlantic Division, the Blueshirts had to find a way to match up with the free-scoring Philadelphia Flyers and the big names that the Pittsburgh Penguins boast when healthy. Even the New York Islanders edged out the Rangers last season in goals scored and the New Jersey Devils are boosted by the return to health of their superstar left winger Zach Parise.
Around the league, the Rangers were seen as a defense-first unit that was only capable of playing a style of hockey that catered to John Tortorella’s selfless team philosophies. Now with Richards in the fold, New York can break away from that label and become a better-rounded hockey team. Paring Richards and Gaborik together finally gives the Rangers a top line that has the potential to score the goals that were so hard to find last season.
Gaborik will be hoping for a return to form after a drop-off in production last season. 48 points in 62 games wasn’t the kind of level that he or Rangers fans expected after an 86 point campaign in 2009-10. With Richards alongside him, Gaborik will now be the recipient of wizardry passing that allowed Loui Eriksson to flourish as Richards’ linemate over the past two seasons in Dallas. Previously, Richards worked on the same line as Martin St. Louis under the eye of then Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Tortorella.
Richards and St. Louis combined wonderfully in Tampa and the skill of Gaborik and passing aptitude of Richards seems like a perfect marriage. The talent available to Tortorella over the past few seasons forced him to adapt a tighter, mistake-free brand of hockey with Rangers as compared to the style seen under his leadership in Tampa. He can now take the chains and restraints off the Rangers when needed and allow New York to become a strong two-way team.
Tonight, Rangers fans will get their first taste of seeing the Richards and Gaborik pairing in action. With Martin Brodeur opposing them in net for the Devils tonight, it will be an intriguing first test for the new linemates. Of course, it’s only a preseason game but it will be exciting to get a glimpse of what Gaborik and Richards can achieve together.
Rangers fans – What are your expectations of Richards, Gaborik and the new-look Blueshirts? Share your opinions below and send your tweets to @HartyLFC.