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|Brandon Prust has a goal and two assists in his past five games.|
In the end, every slump is a test of some kind.
Every time a team goes sideways, it is a test of its coaching staff and players.
Do they stick to the plan even though the losses mount?
Do they continue to believe in coaches, in the system, in each other?
Or do they start to go rogue, break from the pack, try something else?
The answers to those questions more often than not tell the difference between a team that is lost and a team for whom anything is possible.
These are the questions the New York Rangers were faced with not long ago with their season in the balance.
During a one-month period from Jan. 11 to Feb. 11, the Rangers managed just four wins in 14 outings. In the 10 games they did not win, the Rangers scored a total of 18 goals (for those of you struggling with your math, that's less than two goals a game).
For a young team that had impressed with its gritty, relentless play through the first half of the season, this might have been the death knell, a meandering slide out of playoff contention.
"This year, we're kind of finding an identity as a hard-working, grind-it-out group of hockey players," Rangers assistant GM Jim Schoenfeld told ESPN.com. "That is physically demanding and it is mentally demanding."
Despite the lack of productivity, the Rangers' coaching staff and management team liked what they saw. Indicators such as scoring chances, puck possession and shots on goal were positive.
"But the end result was not good," Schoenfeld said. "But the players stuck with it. They stuck with it and they stuck with it. The more you do it [execute the team's style of play], the more conditioned you get to doing it, both mentally and physically."
A test? You bet.
A test passed? You bet.
The Rangers have won seven of nine games. They scored 32 goals in those seven wins. They have nine power-play goals over their past eight games.
And yet they have not played differently, they just have had better results. It may seem like semantics, but ask teams that never get to this point after a terrible slide and they'll tell you it's more than just word play.
"We really aren't playing any differently than we have for most of the year," Schoenfeld said. "It was evidence to us that they do buy into it."
There are lots of players in the Rangers' room who epitomize the team's identity. Ryan Callahan and his team-leading 23 goals. Brandon Dubinsky and his team-best 51 points. Derek Stepan and Brian Boyle. But how about Brandon Prust? Once considered a one-dimensional scrapper, Prust came to New York last season from Calgary as part of the Olli Jokinen deal. Jokinen went back to Calgary this past offseason, while Prust has carved out a valuable niche on the roster.
Rangers coach John Tortorella has not just asked more of Prust, but demanded more. And he's gotten it. Prust is tied for the NHL lead with seven short-handed points and has five short-handed goals, one off the league lead. The London, Ontario, native still drops the gloves when needed, but he also recently had a four-game points streak.
"He plays the game with honor," Schoenfeld said. "He's an easy hockey player for the coaching staff to like and for his teammates to like."
A year ago, the Rangers were running neck and neck with the Philadelphia Flyers, lost the last game of the season in a shootout and missed the playoffs for the first time since the lockout. This season, they appear to be leaving nothing to chance.
"We all seem to be on the same page," Prust told ESPN.com. "There's a good feeling in the dressing room."
Prust talked about a swagger the team possesses, the expectation that the Rangers will win every night. During the team's January slide, that feeling was never far from their minds, he said.
"It was tough. You talk about getting that swagger back," he said. "I think we stayed positive. We knew that we were playing well and we didn't get discouraged."
On a personal note, Prust understands the two-way nature of the relationship with Tortorella. The coach took a chance on him and Prust has taken pride in rewarding that faith. In turn, his level of play has increased Tortorella's confidence in him. Funny how that happens.
"It's been great," the 27-year-old Prust said. "The trade last year was the best thing that's ever happened to me for my career. I've got a chance to play the way I've always known that I can play. It's great to finally feel at home."
After Thursday’s 2-1 shootout loss against Ottawa, the Rangers were seven points ahead of ninth-placed Carolina with seven games to play. Comfortable? Hardly.
Someone tried recently to ask Tortorella about resting players for the playoffs, and the coach would have none of that discussion.
"We don't even allow ourselves to go there," Schoenfeld said. "We still have a lot of points on the table. There's a lot that can happen. We tell our players, 'You can't exhale.'"