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Posted On Thursday, 03.15.2012 / 1:32 PM

By Dave Lozo - Staff Writer / - At the Rink blog

Magnitude of game still the focus for Pens, Rangers

NEW YORK -- Lost in all the hoopla surrounding the return of Sidney Crosby is the fact there's a pretty big hockey game taking place at Madison Square Garden, too.

The Pittsburgh Penguins will be at full strength -- defenseman Kris Letang is back, too -- as they look for their 10th straight victory when they face the New York Rangers in a battle of the Eastern Conference's top two teams.

The Rangers hold a six-point edge on their Atlantic Division rivals, who hold a game in hand. While the Penguins have been surging, the Rangers have been scuffling -- they have won two straight to start a seven-game homestand, but are just 4-3-1 in March and haven't been playing their best of late.

While the Penguins are getting healthy, the Rangers are going in the opposite direction. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist will miss his second straight game due to the flu; Ryan Callahan is out for a third straight game with a foot ailment, and defenseman Michael Del Zotto will miss his fourth consecutive game with a sore hip.

There are enough storylines in this matchup to keep writers at their keyboards for days, but for both teams, the game is all that matters.

"This game is a lot more than about Sidney Crosby coming back to our game and a comeback game for Sid," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "We know that if we want to catch the Rangers and first in our division and hopefully first in the conference, we have to beat them. We're coming in here to win the two points. I don't think we can give them one point and realistically think we have a chance to get them. That's what this game is for us."

Rangers coach John Tortorella doesn't care who is in the lineup for the Penguins.

"We're worried about our club," Tortorella said. "That's all we're concerned about -- the New York Rangers."

Tortorella's players aren't looking at it as just another game, but they aren't concerning themselves with any of the hype surrounding Crosby.

"Doesn't matter," Rangers forward Brian Boyle. "They're a good team that's coming on strong. He's a good player, obviously, but it's a big divisional game. That's the biggest thing. Games get magnified toward the end of the season. That's the biggest thing."

Goaltender Martin Biron will make his second straight start -- the Rangers called up Chad Johnson from Connecticut of the AHL to serve as the backup -- and said it won't be hard to focus on the task at hand.

"We had our morning skate, and we'll leave here this morning game-ready," Biron said. "It's the same as it's always been. When we play Pittsburgh, it's always a very important matchup. It's very exciting, very emotional. With Sidney in the lineup, it adds a different dimension, but I think they've got a lot of weapons on the other side that keeps us on top of our game. It's always a special game when we play them."

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Posted On Thursday, 03.15.2012 / 12:45 PM

By Dave Lozo - Staff Writer / - At the Rink blog

Letang also returning to Penguins' lineup

NEW YORK -- Sidney Crosby isn't the only star returning to the lineup for the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night.

Defenseman Kris Letang, who was out of the lineup for five games due to headaches stemming from a hit to the head Feb. 29, has been cleared to play against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

Letang said he's a little surprised to be back so quickly.

"I was scared a little bit during that game," said Letang, who suffered the injury on a hit by Stars forward Eric Nystrom. "Looking back at it, the symptoms were not that bad. I was able to rehabilitate easier."

Letang was never diagnosed with a concussion this time around, but he missed nearly two months with a concussion suffered in a game against the Montreal Canadiens on Nov. 26. In a strange coincidence, Letang also returned from that injury to face the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 19. In that contest, he had an assist and was plus-2 in 24:17.

Coach Dan Bylsma said he doesn't expect to give Letang a full workload, but he said the same thing before that Jan. 19 game as well. Letang hasn't had the same layoff this time around, and said the symptoms from the Nystrom hit weren't as severe as the ones he felt after the hit by Montreal's Max Pacioretty.

"The first time I got dizzy and I got sick," Letang said. "It was just a question of headaches (this time). It wasn't that bad."

Defenseman Zbynek Michalek said the importance of having Letang back can't be underestimated.

"It's huge," Michalek said. "He's been such a great player for us. He's having a good season and playing so many big minutes against other teams' top lines. He might be one of the top d-men in the League. He maybe doesn't get the credit he deserves in the League and it's great to have him back. I'm glad he's healthy again."

The Penguins have won nine straight games and have climbed to within six points of the Rangers in the chase for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins have played most of the season without their big guns, and Thursday's game will be the fifth this season that the Penguins will have Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang in the lineup.

The best may have yet to come for the now-healthy Penguins.

"Everybody looks at our lineup right and everyone's healthy, but you never know," Letang said. "The chemistry we had before…I think we have a pretty tight group and I think we can do a lot of great stuff. But we have to get everybody going at the same time."

"We are not worrying about who's in the lineup or who's not, we're just playing our game and we've done a pretty good job of it so far this season," Michalek said. "Obviously it's a great boost for our team to have some of the top players in the world back in our lineup. In the long run, it will definitely be a boost for our team. It's exciting, just the way we are playing right now. Having these guys back, we know we have the potential."

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Posted On Thursday, 03.15.2012 / 11:44 AM

By Dave Lozo - Staff Writer / - At the Rink blog

Lundqvist not yet recovered from flu; Biron to start

NEW YORK -- For the second straight game, the New York Rangers won't be anywhere near full-strength.

Goaltender and Vezina Trophy favorite Henrik Lundqvist said Thursday morning that the flu bug that sidelined him for Tuesday's game is gone, but he's still not recovered to the point where he's ready to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in an Eastern Conference showdown on Thursday night.

"I was hoping to play tonight, but being off the ice for three days, I had a feeling it might be tough to be game-ready right away," said Lundqvist, who took part in the team's morning practice but won't dress for the game. "There's no health issue. It's just sitting at home doing nothing. Just laying in bed for two days doesn't really help."

Backup Martin Biron will make his second consecutive start after making 27 saves in the Rangers' 4-2 win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night. For the year, the 34-year-old Biron is 12-4-2 with a 2.23 goals-against average and .910 save percentage.

Chad Johnson was again recalled from Connecticut of the AHL to serve as Biron's backup.

With the Penguins on a nine-game winning streak and now six points back of the Rangers for the top spot in the East, Biron has been thrust into his team's biggest game of the season. He sees it more as big opportunity for the club, not just himself.

"It's big for everybody here to keep going and building our game," Biron said. "I think the last few games have been good games for us in the team game and some individual games too. It's a big stage and a big opportunity for this club to keep going."

The news was equally discouraging on captain Ryan Callahan (foot) and defenseman Michael Del Zotto (hip). Callahan will miss his third straight game and sixth game in the last nine with his injury, while Del Zotto will sit for the fourth consecutive game.

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Posted On Wednesday, 03.14.2012 / 11:44 AM

By Dave Lozo - Staff Writer / - At the Rink blog

Caps' Backstrom skates for second straight day

Nicklas Backstrom, out more than two months due to a concussion, offered some good news to the Washington Capitals' Web site Wednesday.

"I felt good," said Backstrom after lightly skating for the second day in a row at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "There was no problems at all."

Backstrom suffered a concussion on Jan. 3 after taking an illegal hit to the head from Calgary's Rene Bourque, who was suspended five games for the incident. Bourque is now a member of the Montreal Canadiens. Backstrom skated a few times after the injury, but was eventually shut down and went home to Sweden to get his mind off hockey.

"I was out for a couple games and you get frustrated seeing all the guys," Backstrom said. "You want to be out there with them. I was changing up the atmosphere a little bit. Go home, see my family, girlfriend, stuff like that. I think that was a good thing to do and I feel better after that.

"I wasn't thinking as much about hockey as I was here. Hopefully, that helped me a lot I could do my owne thing. I was biking and stuff there."

Backstrom was leading the Capitals in scoring at the time of his injury and still ranks fourth on the team with 42 points in 38 games. He tried skating in the days that followed the Bourque and one more time later in the month before he was eventually shut down.

The 24-year-old said there's no comparison to how he felt when he woke up Jan. 4 compared to Wednesday morning after skating Tuesday.

"I've been improving a lot. I don't have the same feeling I had from when I first got the hit," Backstrom said. "We're on the program right now and I just got back from Sweden. It feels better. I started skating. You have to see where you are.

"It's day and night. It's a good sign I think. But I don't know anything else. I just know I'm skating thepast two days."

One thing Backstrom doesn't know is when he'll be back. He's currently on LTIR and there is no timetable for his return.

"We'll see what happens," Backstrom said. "The only thing I can tell you now is I'm on the ice skating light. We'll go from there. It's a process and we're working on it. I want to be out there so bad. A concussion is nothing to play around with. You want to make sure you're 100 percent before you go out there."

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Posted On Tuesday, 03.13.2012 / 5:12 PM

By Dave Lozo - Staff Writer / - At the Rink blog

Callahan, Del Zotto remain out for Rangers

NEW YORK -- The Rangers' Ryan Callahan and Michael Del Zotto will miss Tuesday night's game against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Callahan is sitting for the second straight game after missing three straight games with a bruised foot to start March. The Rangers' captain returned for three games after that stretch, but he once again finds himself out of the lineup.

Del Zotto will miss his third straight game with an injury the Rangers aren't disclosing. He sat out a game against the Lightning on March 2 with a hip injury, returned for the next three games, and will now miss his third consecutive contest.

Coach John Tortorella said he doesn't think the injuries are long-term issues and both players are day-to-day.

Forward Mats Zuccarello, called up before the Rangers defeated the Islanders 4-3 in overtime Sunday, will once again be in the lineup for his fifth game of the season.

Earlier in the day, the Rangers announced that Henrik Lundqvist (flu) would not dress. Backup Martin Biron will start with AHL call-up Chad Johnson serving as the backup against the Hurricanes.

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Posted On Tuesday, 03.13.2012 / 3:50 PM

By Dave Lozo - Staff Writer / - At the Rink blog

Biron to start for flu-stricken Lundqvist

NEW YORK -- Henrik Lundqvist was scheduled to make his 52nd start of the season for the Rangers on Tuesday night, but the flu will keep him out of the lineup against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Lundqvist did not take part in the team's optional practice Tuesday morning, usually a sure sign that he would be that night's starting goaltender. Instead, it will be backup Martin Biron making his 18th start of the season.

To replace Lundqvist, the Rangers recalled Chad Johnson from the Connecticut Whale of the AHL.

Lundqvist is the likely favorite for the Vezina Trophy, posting a 32-14-5 record, 1.88 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. Only the Blues' Brian Elliott has a better GAA and save percentage, but he has made 21 fewer starts.

Biron has been solid in his few appearances, going 11-4-2 with a 2.25 GAA and .909 save percentage. He has struggled of late, however, going 2-2-1 with a 2.94 GAA a .880 save percentage. This season against the Hurricanes, Biron is 2-0-0 with a 2.50 GAA and .907 save percentage.

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Posted On Tuesday, 03.06.2012 / 1:50 PM

By Dave Lozo - Staff Writer / - At the Rink blog

Complacency not a concern for Tortorella

NEWARK, N.J. -- With the Rangers sitting atop the League standings, eight points clear of the Penguins and 12 points ahead of the Bruins with less than 20 games to play, it wouldn't be out of the question for complacency to set in with a young team.

Rangers coach John Tortorella, however, doesn't see that being a problem at all over the final month of the season.

"Not with this team," said Tortorella, whose Rangers will face the Devils at the Prudential Center on Tuesday night. "This team is a group that understands that if we're going to continue to compete, we need to work every day. I trust the group understands that. We've got a lot of things to work on."

Tortorella admitted that all of his teams haven't been free of lackadaisical play. Without naming the specific team, Tortorella said that was a problem when he was coaching the Tampa Bay Lightning when they were a young team still learning about what it takes to win consistently in the NHL.

"I will say early on with the last team I coached, there were some struggles understanding how to keep your level up, but that's part of a process with a young team," said Tortorella, who is now coaching one of the youngest teams in the NHL. "I think our team has gone through a process. The best way I can put it -- I trust our guys. Our leadership group and how they've worked with their identity and the level of play that needs to be there at all times in the season. I trust them.

"I think you're going to have some struggles here and there. I think you need to be really careful when a team starts losing some games, everyone says the readiness isn't there. There's a lot of different ways you lose and win hockey games. I can only speak on my behalf."

Tortorella said the Rangers, who are 13-3-3 in their last 19 games, had an extensive film session before taking the ice for practice Tuesday morning.

"You have to," Tortorella said. "I'm being honest. I think if you don't continue to work on even the good parts of your game, let alone the ones you're struggling with, it slips. We just spent 40 minutes with tape this morning as far as some of the details of our game that I feel has slipped. That's the way this coaching staff operates. We want to continue to get better and stay consistent."

There's always lessons for young teams that when you win five or six, you can't get complacent. You need to keep it level. "

Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist spoke of the different feeling at this time of the season compared to the previous two, when the Rangers were fighting just to get in the playoffs.

"When you just think about what you have to do, a lot of times you get more points because you play better," Lundqvist said. "Your mindset is not, you have to get points. It just get, get your game better and improve your game and the rest will take care of itself. I think our mindset has been good all year."

Brad Richards, who played under Tortorella in Tampa during all seven of their seasons there, said the Rangers have been in nearly the same spot for three weeks, so if complacency was going to show up, it would have already.

"We could've done that for a little while now and put ourselves back in a battle," said Richards, who cited that Pittsburgh has been playing very well of late. "We've been aware of that. It can still happen very quickly. A bad week with the amount of hockey we're playing -- we're playing pretty much four games a week in March (17 games total) -- you put in a bad week of work and you don't know what can happen."

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Posted On Tuesday, 03.06.2012 / 1:48 PM

By Dave Lozo - Staff Writer / - At the Rink blog

Eminger draws into lineup for Rangers

NEWARK, N.J. -- With Ryan Callahan likely back in the lineup for the Rangers on Tuesday night, the team will be back to nearly full strength when they face the New Jersey Devils.

One lineup change will be the insertion of defenseman Steve Eminger in place of Anton Stralman, who will likely be a healthy scratch based on the defense pairings. Stralman was benched for the third period of Sunday's game against the Bruins and had a turnover that led to a goal in the first period.

Here's what the lineup will likely look like tonight:

Artem Anisimov - Derek Stepan - Marian Gaborik
Brandon Dubinsky - Brad Richards - Ryan Callahan
Ruslan Fedotenko - Brian Boyle - Carl Hagelin
Michael Rupp - John Mitchell - Brandon Prust

Ryan McDonagh - Dan Girardi
Michael Del Zotto - Steve Eminger
Marc Staal - Stu Bickel

Henrik Lundqvist
Martin Biron

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Posted On Tuesday, 03.06.2012 / 1:16 PM

By Dave Lozo - Staff Writer / - At the Rink blog

Lundqvist supports initiative's message of tolerance

NEWARK, N.J. -- Henrik Lundqvist is one of the most accommodating players in the NHL, always willing to answer a question at his locker long after most would walk away and a happy and willing contributor to the Garden of Dreams Foundation, a non-profit charity whose goal is to "make dreams come true for kids facing obstacles."

So when Patrick Burke needed assistance with the You Can Play Project, an initiative designed to teach tolerance and acceptance of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community in all sports, Lundqvist was happy to be part of it.

"For me, it's obvious that everyone should have the same rights and ability to play the game, it doesn't matter race or sexual orientation," Lundqvist told Tuesday morning. "To me, I think overall, all the hockey players I meet are a respectful group of people. I've never had an issue with it or seen people have issues with it. But when they asked me, if they wanted my help, I would."

Burke, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, is the son of Leafs GM Brian Burke, who lost his son Brendan in a car accident in 2010. Before his death, Brendan revealed his homosexuality to his family in 2007 and went public with the information in 2009. Brendan was working toward spreading a message of tolerance and inclusion in the hockey world while working as a student manager and video assistant for the men's hockey team at Miami (Ohio) University at the time of his death.

"I've said it many times -- if a player form the Flyers came out tomorrow and I could improve our team by cutting him, great, see you later," Patrick Burke told's Adam Kimelman on Monday. "… Conversely, if I can win a Stanley Cup with 22 gay guys, great. Let's go."

Lundqvist, along with many other high-profile hockey players, including Columbus' Rick Nash, Chicago's Duncan Keith, Toronto's Joffrey Lupul and Dion Phaneuf and Philadelphia's Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell, appeared in a PSA that aired nationally during Sunday afternoon's Bruins-Rangers game on NBC.

Lundqvist said that during his playing days both in Sweden and the NHL with the Rangers, he never knew of a teammate or player that was gay who wanted to come out. Lundqvist also said if that was the case, that person would've been accepted, whether if it was while he was playing for Frolunda or the Rangers.

But Lundqvist also said he understands the difficulty and fear that comes with being open about such a matter in a sports locker room.

"It is a tough mentality, no question," Lundqvist said. "I've never been on a team where guys come out. I don't know how guys would react. I can say from the people I know, that players are very respectful. Honestly, it wouldn't be a problem."

When asked if it would be a problem on this current Rangers team, Lundqvist gave a quick, emphatic answer.

"Absolutely not," he said.

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Posted On Tuesday, 03.06.2012 / 12:48 PM

By Dave Lozo - Staff Writer / - At the Rink blog

Game-time decision, Callahan a likely go vs. Devils

NEWARK, N.J. -- Rangers captain Ryan Callahan will likely return from a three-game absence Tuesday night to take on the New Jersey Devils.

Callahan, who hasn't played since the Rangers' 2-0 victory against the Devils eight days ago, has been dealing with a swollen right foot. X-rays showed no break, but the swelling was so significant that Callahan couldn't get the foot into his skate. He took part in the team's morning skate at Prudential Center and appeared to have no limitations, but said afterward he will be a game-time decision.

"It felt pretty good out there, not too bad," said Callahan, who also skated on his own Monday. "I'll take warmups and go from there, see how it reacts."

Callahan said he'll wear an extra piece of padding in his skate as a precaution if he does play.

"It's just a matter of being comfortable out there and being able to do everything at top speed," Callahan said. "I felt comfortable and I felt good.

The League-leading Rangers, who have 91 points in 64 games, didn't miss a beat in Callahan's absence, going 2-0-1. Facing the defending Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins on Sunday afternoon, the Rangers found a way to pull out a 4-3 victory.

Callahan is the Rangers' second-leading scorer with 25 goals and 47 points in 61 games.

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Quote of the Day

Obviously there's a lot of expectations around me but it's something I try not to focus on. I'm just trying to go out there, be myself on the ice every day, try to get better, be myself around the guys in the locker room. I think that's what's made me successful and the person that I am.

— Sabres forward Jack Eichel on transitioning from college hockey to the NHL