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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sluggish Rangers desperately seeking spark for stretch run

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PHILADELPHIA -- About 14 months ago, New York Rangers owner James Dolan made a rare stop at a post-game press conference and proclaimed his team fit for a championship.

"I think we're pretty close to getting that back," Dolan said of the Stanley Cup.

Get it back? Even with some big pieces, the Rangers would be happy this season just to get back to the playoffs. The Rangers are closer to missing the post-season than being anywhere near contention for a top spot in the Eastern Conference. Hanging on to eighth place by two points over the New York Islanders, the Rangers start the final month of a shortened regular season desperately trying not to fall from top seed to missing out in one year.

"I just think we have good people and sooner or later they're going to get out of it," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "It's kind of in a little bit of a sprint here because we don't have a full season, we just have this month here. I hope it happens quickly."

The Rangers hope Tuesday's dominant 5-2 win over a Philadelphia team they have just owned the last two years helps build some steam for a playoff push. But it won't be easy. They have road games at playoff-bound Ottawa and Montreal and then another three games before an April 6 date at Carolina, the only team in a six-game stretch not currently slotted into a playoff spot.

The Rangers were expected to be the class of the East after a season in which they made the conference finals and were the No. 1 seed in the conference. Little depth, even less chemistry, overhyped forwards, and injuries, notably to defenceman Marc Staal, have left the Rangers (16-3-3; 35 points) foundering in eighth.

But there's plenty of time. After all, they just need to make the tournament at this point. What happens beyond that juncture -- keep in mind the Los Angeles Kings won the Cup as a No. 8 seed just 10 months ago -- is anyone's guess.

Sure, the Flyers are worse than the Rangers. But a thorough road win in a tough building could help the Rangers roll toward the post-season.

"We want to be in a better spot and we're not," Henrik Lundqvist, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL's top goalie last season, said. "We have to battle right now for each point."

The Rangers are getting the production they hoped for from Rick Nash (12 goals, 28 points) after a big trade with Columbus. Nash was thrown into the forward mix that also includes Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards, making it hard not to view the Rangers as being a serious a Stanley Cup threat in the pre-season.

Gaborik has nine goals and 19 points, though Richards has only five goals. Richards, considered the biggest prize in the 2011 free-agent market, has been a big disappointment. Along the way, Derek Stepan has emerged as the top-line centre. Richards scored a rare goal Tuesday night to help the Rangers beat the Flyers for the 11th time in their last 12 meetings.

Because Richards has been so ineffective, Tortorella has mixed up his lines and relied on the combination of Nash, Stepan and Carl Hagelin to spark the Rangers. It's getting there.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 28, 2013 D2

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