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Hartnett: Rangers Pass Islanders Audition, Bigger Tests To Come

Meeting With Penguins Will Prove Whether Rangers Can Make Deep Playoff Run
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Brad Richards

Brad Richards of the New York Rangers.(Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

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‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers won in thrilling fashion over the Islanders on Sunday night but it’s just the first of many tests ahead that will prove just how legitimate their Stanley Cup chances actually are.

After suffering three consecutive road losses, questions being asked began to grow louder. Are the Rangers capable of maintaining their first place pace? Can their powerplay woes be solved? Are their highest-paid stars earning their paychecks?

Sunday night’s overtime victory shed some light on whether the Rangers can put it all together. The Blueshirts’ two most highly-paid stars stepped up when it mattered to earn the Rangers a much-needed two points and put some of their issues on the back-burner.

Brad Richards was heavily involved and blasted two powerplay goals past Evgeni Nabokov and Marian Gaborik of course, scored the overtime winner with 5.8 second remaining.

Brian Boyle spoke about the Rangers’ mentality after the game and the importance of Gaborik and Richards stepping up. “There wasn’t any panic, I guess we were confident,” he said.

He continued, “We were pretty poised throughout, I think we made some good plays at key times. Richie was a horse tonight, Gabby was huge. Obviously, that’s a big goal for us. They’re going to carry us and they took a big chunk of pressure off of us. It was fun to be a part of,” he explained.

Head coach John Tortorella was pleased by the way his team kept their cool to achieve victory. “I think the thing I like most about it is the way we won. The situation we’re in as a club, it’s a good way to win a hockey game. We kept our patience. I’m glad the way the team stayed together, didn’t panic and just kept on grinding away and found a way to win a game,” he stated.

The key word with the Rangers is their resiliency. They’ve proved their mettle throughout the season and it is their greatest strength. While it is important to have those characteristics, sometimes it isn’t enough against more talented opponents.

Doing it against the mistake-prone Islanders is one thing but hanging with a star-laden team like the Pittsburgh Penguins is another. If Sidney Crosby is inserted into the Penguins’ lineup on Thursday, it will be an even tougher challenge for the Blueshirts.

We’ll definitely know after Thursday’s game how playoff-prepared the Rangers are and whether some of the positives from Sunday will continue.

The improved powerplay was certainly a positive but it will be tested in upcoming match-ups against the Penguins, Devils and Red Wings. Mats Zuccarello made a big impact on his NHL return and seemed to impress his teammates with his skillful work on the powerplay.

Richards described Zuccarello’s play. “He’s a smart player. With that much ice, he’s very effective out there. He’s a heady player who makes some great plays and doesn’t panic with it,” he mentioned.

Boyle was pleased to see Zuccarello contribute right away. “He’s a great kid. He works hard and is just a fun guy to be around. We’re really happy for him. He helped us tremendously tonight and he’s really gifted offensively. He’s a talent and helped us win the game,” he said.

I asked Boyle about Zuccarello’s potential long-term impact on the powerplay.  Boyle stated, “He can help it, I think he’s got a gift offensively and can see the ice really well. He makes some great plays and we’re gonna need him to do that.”

Tortorella used Zuccarello primarily on the powerplay but also spent some time playing even strength. Throughout his time in the NHL, his defensive attributes have been questioned and I made a point of asking Tortorella if he can see Zuccarello getting more even-strength opportunities.

“We’ll see. I’m not sure where it all fits yet. We’ve just brought him back here today. We’ll see what happens as we go through,” Tortorella responded.

One player who has undoubtedly stepped up is Carl Hagelin who played significant minutes on the penalty kill in place of injured captain Ryan Callahan. Brad Richards has served as a mentor to Hagelin during his rookie season and is impressed by Hagelin’s ability to learn on the fly and sees more coming from him.

“He’s playing great. We’ve seen that all year. Every since he came up, he keeps getting better. I love playing with him, found some chemistry with him and we’re working together and talking. It’s a new experience for him to play that many minutes in the NHL. Coming out of college, he’s handling it very well and you can see there’s more to his game that keeps coming,” Richards explained.

Tortorella also views Hagelin as a player who can continue to learn and develop other aspects of his game. “He did a good job. Speed is a very important thing and he’s learning to do the other things in the game. If he keeps his head on straight, he could be a really good player,” he stated.

The Rangers need to prove that their win over the Islanders can translate into victories over tougher opponents during this homestand.  Otherwise, questions about their legitimacy in the playoffs will reemerge.

Rangers fans, are your Blueshirts putting it back together or should the victory over the Islanders be taken with caution?  Share your opinions below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.

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