NEW YORK -- There are a handful of roster spots on the New York Rangers that are there for the taking. On Thursday night against the New Jersey Devils, a few players made their cases for being on coach John Tortorella's opening-night roster.
Sure, Marian Gaborik wound up being the hero, scoring his second goal of the game in overtime to give the Rangers a 4-3 victory at Madison Square Garden. And yes, the newly acquired Alexander Frolov made a great first impression with a goal and two assists. But it was Brian Boyle, Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh who likely gained the most with their performances.
The 6-foot-6, 244-pound Boyle joined the Rangers last season after playing 36 games over parts of two seasons with the Los Angeles Kings. The 25-year-old wasn't the physical presence the Rangers expected, but he made sure to get started on the right foot during this preseason.
Boyle was a wrecking ball on his first shift, delivering three fierce hits. He capped off his first appearance of the season by pummeling Devils center Adam Mair in a fight that brought the crowd to its feet in appreciation and drew an instigator penalty against Mair.
He followed that show of brute strength with a show of finesse and power in the second period when he blew past Devils defenseman Eric Gelinas, used his body to shield the puck, and finished with a beautiful backhand-to-forehand move to beat goaltender Martin Brodeur to put the Rangers ahead 3-2.
The goal was nearly the game-winner, but Devils left wing Zach Parise tied the score with 1:46 left in the third period to force overtime. Still, Boyle's performance was something on which to build.
"It's more about being consistent," said Boyle. "I think I can do things. We have a lot of skill guys on this team. I can use my body to do things that other guys on the team can't. I have to play to my strengths. It is playing hard, playing physical. It's more about the initiative. I can bang guys and create room. Again, it's just one preseason game, but it was a lot of fun to get back on the ice."
Tortorella believes Boyle is very aware of his tenuous position with the team and liked what he saw on Thursday.
"I think Brian Boyle wants to improve," said Tortorella. "I think he improved last year throughout the year and I think he has looked at the people that are here and he knows where he's at. He's had a very good camp."
Defenseman Ryan McDonagh, acquired by the Rangers in the trade that sent Scott Gomez to the Montreal Canadiens, didn't show up on the scoresheet but made his presence felt.
Devils forward Mattias Tedenby twice tested McDonagh by trying to use his speed to get around him. But the 6-foot-1, 222-pound McDonagh wasn't having it, knocking Tedenby off the puck and preventing a scoring chance both times. McDonagh sent the 5-10, 176-pound flying into the end boards with one of the hits.
Tortorella isn’t ready to send the game film of McDonagh to the Hockey Hall of Fame, but he was impressed by 12th pick in the 2007 Entry Draft.
"I thought he did some good things and I think there's a little bit of speed coming down his side and there's a bit of a struggle. We expect that," Tortorella said. "He's got good feet. He just has to understand handling the gap, not lunging. He's going to play some more exhibition games and I think he's going to feel more comfortable along the way. He had some really good shifts, but other times it was a struggle coming down the wing."
The 20-year-old Stepan looked like he was ready for the NHL while centering a line with Gaborik and Frolov and made a great play to help set up Gaborik's first-period power-play goal. Zuccarello, last year's MVP in the Swedish Elite League, was caught flat-footed a few times and only had one good scoring chance. But the 5-9, 170-pound Zuccarello was able to pop right back to his skates after some big hits, one of which came from Devils defenseman and notoriously big hitter Anton Volchenkov.
For the Devils, it was the debut of their top line -- Parise, Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk -- that fans wanted to see. The trio didn't disappoint.
Parise had a goal and two assists while Kovalchuk and Zajac each had a goal and an assist. Zajac's first-period goal that tied the game at 1 came off a gorgeous passing play with his linemates. Kovalchuk's breakaway goal in the second period was the result of a terrific pass by Parise.
It's just one preseason game, but Devils coach John MacLean liked what he saw, even with Kovalchuk moving from the left wing to the right wing.
"I think he looked fine there," MacLean said. "(Kovalchuk and Parise) line up in different positions at different times offensively, sometimes on their off-wing. I thought they were finding each other, sometimes maybe they tried to do a little bit too much. It's early and they'll develop a lot more."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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