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Thursday, October 21, 2010
Rangers' season hinges on October success

By Pierre LeBrun

TORONTO -- Two weeks into the season and already the New York Rangers face a stretch of games that could greatly affect the outlook for 2010-11.

Three soul-sucking injuries to key players Marian Gaborik, Chris Drury and Vaclav Prospal have left the Blueshirts in a position where the next month will likely decide whether they'll be a factor in the playoff race this season.

The reality is, for all the parity in this league, once you dig yourself too deep a hole after October, it's nearly impossible to make it back in because of all the three-point games.

Derek Stepan
Rookie center Derek Stepan, who has three goals in four games, will need to maintain his strong start if the ailing Rangers are going to have success.
The challenge is on. Some people have already written them off because of the injuries.

"We're over that. We know what we have going on injury-wise," Rangers blueliner Daniel Girardi told ESPN.com after Thursday's morning skate at Air Canada Centre. "We don't want to talk about that anymore. There's been a lot of talk the last week, and we don't want to deal with that anymore. We know what's going on with our lineup and we're happy with the guys that we have in the lineup and we know they can do the job the right way."

A 1-2-1 start entering Thursday night's game with the Maple Leafs has done little to exude confidence from the Rangers' faithful. The hope inside the room is that the team uses the injury adversity to forge closer together.

Gaborik is out two to four weeks with a separated shoulder. Drury is out six weeks with a fractured finger. Prospal is gone six to eight weeks recovering from knee surgery.

Suck it up, boys.

"It's going to take all of us," coach John Tortorella said Thursday. "Sometimes when you have those type of injuries, you can become a dangerous team by just pulling together. We've had our meetings; we've gone over tape and what we need to do. We're certainly not going to talk about injuries; we just have to play better and more consistent."

The fact is, even before losing those three forwards, this Rangers team was likely going to have a hard time scoring goals. Now the problem is just compounded.

What's important for this Rangers team right now is to develop an identity. You hear coaches around the league talking about that all the time. What are the Rangers? With seven new faces in the lineup this season, that's a good question: What is the identity of this team?

"For our team, it's got to be our work ethic and how hard we work and how consistently we do it every game," Rangers blueliner Marc Staal told ESPN.com on Thursday. "Just knowing that when we come in, we're going to give them everything we got, we're going to be tough to play against, they're going to have bruises and not feel well when they're coming out of games against us.

"That's something we have to do every game for us to be successful."

That's the goal. They're not there yet.

"We're striving to do that," Tortorella said. "We need to play hard, we need to play through people, we need to make it hard on their people. That needs to be a constant with a team no matter if there's injury or not, and I don't think we've been constant there."

Win or lose, to me this is a Rangers team clearly in transition. After four straight seasons in the playoffs and missing out by a shootout goal last season, it was time to shift gears a little, and that shows with the Rangers opening the season with the ninth-youngest roster in the NHL.

Rookie center Derek Stepan, 20, has been terrific early on. Staal (23), Michael Del Zotto (20) and Ryan Callahan (25) are other solid building blocks. And at some point, Ryan McDonagh (21) and Pavel Valentenko (23) will be back up with the big club.

Just how quickly that happens depends on what transpires in the next few months.

This will be either another season chasing the final few spots in the Eastern playoff race or finally a time to turn the page and focus on the younger building blocks.

And perhaps a bit of both.