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Hartnett: Return Of Captain Callahan Comes At Crucial Time For Rangers

Rangers Can’t Let The Bleeding Continue And Fall Behind Early
Ryan Callahan (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Ryan Callahan (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

Barring an unforeseen setback, Ryan Callahan will make his 2013-14 season debut under the bright lights of Staples Center on Monday night when the Rangers take on the Los Angeles Kings at 10:30 p.m. ET.

The return of Callahan’s inspirational and wholehearted play couldn’t come at a more important time. New York’s preseason slump carried into Thursday’s regular-season opener as it lost to the Coyotes, 4-1. The Rangers can’t let the bleeding continue and fall behind early in a loaded Metropolitan Division race.

It was an uncharacteristically sloppy game by the Rangers at Jobing.com Arena. They lacked focus and positional sense. The Blueshirts cannot afford to allow these bad habits to spiral into a West Coast losing skid before returning to the home comforts of Madison Square Garden on October 28.

Thankfully for the Rangers, Callahan can serve as a large band-aid and ointment to cover up and heal the Blueshirts’ wounds.

Callahan forces teammates to raise their level through sheer effort and example. When teammates see their spirited captain throwing himself around like a pinball all over the ice, they follow his lead.

The 28-year-old impacts games as much as nearly any player in the league. Callahan scored 15 goals and notched 16 assists in 45 games in 2012-13. Callahan was on pace to record his finest statistical season had last season not been shortened to 48 games due to the lockout. His 154 hits ranked 11th among all players in 2012-13. In 2011-12, Callahan was fifth overall on the NHL hits leaderboard with 271 hits.

It’s easy to overlook Callahan’s value on the power play when he’s killing penalties with gusto, throwing monstrous checks and playing the fastest game in the world with reckless abandon.

In 2011-12, Callahan tied for fifth overall in the NHL with 13 power-play goals, tying Washington Capitals ace Alex Ovechkin and bettering Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin.

During that same year, Callahan tied Malkin and teammate Brad Richards with nine game-winning goals for fourth-best in the league.

Callahan battled through a torn labrum during the 2013 playoffs. His production dipped to five points in 12 playoff games as he battled bravely through the pain barrier. It’s no coincidence that the Rangers were bounced by the Boston Bruins in a five-game Eastern Conference semifinals demolition while Callahan wasn’t anywhere near 100 percent.

Head coach Alain Vigneault is barely into his infancy as head coach of the Rangers, yet some fans have expressed their doubts over Vigneault’s ability to lead the Rangers to success after the tumultuous, yet impressive era under ex-head coach John Tortorella. These doubts are overreactions given Vigneault’s track record in Vancouver and ability to get players to buy into his uptempo offensive system.

Callahan’s presence will help ease some of the early burden off Vigneault’s back. He is indeed the heart and soul of the Rangers, and will make Vigneault’s life easier because he contributes in a ton of ways.

ASHAM RETURNS TO LINEUP TO ADD MUSCLE ON WEST-COAST SWING

35-year-old winger Arron Asham missed out on Thursday’s season opener in Phoenix. According to Vigneault, Asham will be leaned on by the Blueshirts to provide strength and grit in upcoming games against physical opponents. The Rangers will face the Kings, Sharks, Ducks and Blues during their West-Coast swing before heading east to visit the Washington Capitals on October 16.

Asham was held to only 27 games last season due to recurrent lower-back issues and was benched by Tortorella for significant stretches throughout the 2012-13 season.

Vigneault also confirmed that 21-year-old rookie winger Jesper Fast will be scratched to make way for Asham’s re-introduction into the lineup. The promising and talented Fast could suffer a similar fate as 20-year-old forward J.T. Miller, who was sent to the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack by the Rangers on Saturday.

Carl Hagelin is scheduled to come off the long-term injured reserve (LTIR) list after 10 games and 24 days have passed. It would allow the speedy 25-year-old winger to make his season debut in the Rangers’ home opener on October 28 when the Blueshirts host the Montreal Canadiens.

Unless Fast suddenly receives significant playing time or another player suffers an injury, he would be the most obvious candidate to be sent down when Hagelin comes off the LTIR list.

MILLER STARS IN WOLF PACK DEBUT

Miller enjoyed a hugely-successful season debut for the Wolf Pack on Sunday. The Wolf Pack defeated the Albany Devils, 4-3, largely due to Miller’s three-point performance.

Miller twice replied with tying goals for the Wolf Pack, before Dylan McIlrath’s third-period goal served as the game winner. He also assisted on Chris Kreider’s first-period power-play goal.

If Miller can keep up his success at the AHL level, it won’t be long before he regains a spot on the Rangers’ roster.

He had forced his way into Vigneault’s plans after putting in strong performances during the tail end of the Blueshirts’ preseason after recovering from a hamstring injury that prevented him from taking part in the first three games of the preseason.

Vigneault was effusive in his praise for Miller before the Rangers departed for the West Coast.

“I see potential in that young man,” Vigneault said. “I see a real solid skill-set. Like any other young player, he’s going to hopefully get better every day. He’s gonna have the right attitude to push himself to become the best player that he can be. There’s definitely a lot of upside there. It’s our job as a coaching staff, and his job as a player to work on becoming the best he can be.”

It’s only a matter of time before Miller pushes himself back into Vigneault’s plans. While the Wolf Pack will certainly provide Miller with consistent minutes, his apparent talent and driven nature has shown that he belongs with the Blueshirts.

Sending Miller down after he struggled in the Rangers’ season opener was an overreaction. He deserves a run of 10 or 15 games to prove whether or not he can truly handle life in the NHL.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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