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'Doobie Brothers' hit sweet notes for Rangers

by Chuck Gormley
They are the NHL's hottest line on one of the NHL's hottest teams.

The torrid New York Rangers have discovered some magic in the unlikely trio of center Brandon Dubinsky, left wing Aaron Voros and right wing Nikolai Zherdev.

"The Doobie Brothers" -- we'll take credit for coining the name -- entered the weekend with a League-best 19 points in their first six games and have dismissed the rumors of the Rangers being a one-line team.

"You can see," Rangers coach Tom Renney said of his second line, "the sum of the parts."

So, who are these three guys and how did Renney come up with the idea of putting them together?

At 22, Dubinsky is one of the NHL's rising young stars and is quickly becoming a fan favorite in New York.

"He seems like he's getting better by the second," Rangers captain Chris Drury said. "Every game he has more and more confidence, stronger on the puck, everything."

Even before his goal-scoring binge, fans in Madison Square Garden were chanting "Doo-bie, Doo-bie" when Dubinsky was introduced in the home opener.

"It's special," Dubinsky said of the warm reception. "I want to be that player that fans like because I'm willing to put it on the line every night for my teammates."

A native of Anchorage, Alaska, Dubinsky was part of the Rangers' massive rebuilding project in late 2003-04 as the Rangers sold off several veterans and, in return, obtained 6 picks in the first 2 rounds of the 2004 Entry Draft. Of those 6 selections,
only Dubinsky, who was taken at No. 60, and rookie center Lauri Korpikoski, selected at No. 19, are currently on the Rangers' roster.

Compared to most NHL forwards, Dubinsky is a bit of a late bloomer. After playing 4 full seasons with the Portland Winter Hawks of the Western HockeyLeague, the Rangers sent him to the Hartford Wolf Pack for a full season in the AHL.

After Dubinsky made the Rangers roster as a 21-year-old last season, he was one of 16 rookies selected to participate in the 2008 YoungStars competition at the NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta. Dubinsky scored a pair of goals and assisted on another and was named the YoungStars' Most Valuable Player.

"I certainly think it was good for me," Dubinsky said of his time in the minors. "I learned a lot of things in the American League. I think playing in juniors, I was a little bit one-track minded. I focused on scoring and offense a lot and kind of didn't have a defensive aspect to my game. I kind of relied on my talent level to get me through."

Even as a rookie, Renney was impressed enough with Dubinsky's skills to move him onto a top line with Jaromir Jagr and Sean Avery. The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder did something neither Scott Gomez nor Chris Drury could accomplish before him -- he helped pull Jagr out of a long scoring slump, ultimately pulling the Rangers with him.

But when summer arrived and Jagr shuffled off to play in Russia and Avery signed with Dallas, Renney needed to find Dubinsky a new set of wingers.

When Zherdev looked out of place on a top line with center Scott Gomez and left wing Markus Naslund, Renney tried putting Zherdev with Dubinsky and replaced left wing Nigel Dawes with Voros.

The result? Magic.

In its first five games, the line of Dubinsky, the dealer, Voros, the net crasher, and Zherdev, the sniper, combined for 8 goals and the Rangers started the season with 5-straight wins, their best start since 1983.

"I want to be that player that fans like because I'm willing to put it on the line every night for my teammates."
-- Brandon Dubinsky

"Certain guys mesh well together," Gomez said. "That line, all the young guys, played well. That's how we're going to have to play this year. Each guy is going to have to go for it."

Voros, 27, is living proof that being a long shot is better than not having a shot at all. A native of Vancouver who grew up an avid Rangers fan, Voros actually rooted against his hometown Canucks when the Rangers beat them in the 1994 Stanley Cup Final. He was 12 years old at the time and his dreams of playing in the
NHL were just that.

"It's definitely a dream come true," Voros said of his opportunity with the Rangers, "and I'm definitely blessed to be in the position I'm in."

When the New Jersey Devils drafted Voros in the eighth round of the 2001 NHL Draft, he was a longshot to play in the NHL and was eventually dealt to the Minnesota Wild for a seventh rounder.

In November of 2003, when Voros was 21, doctors found a vascular tumor under his knee cap and informed him his left leg would need to be amputated to give him the best chance of beating cancer. Voros sought other options and after 7 surgeries and 8 weeks of treatment to combat a staph infection, he was back on his feet. He gained back more than 40 pounds the following summer and redirected his energies toward reaching the NHL.

That happened last season when he played 55 games for the Wild and was nominated for the Bill Masterton Trophy for his perseverance and dedication to hockey.

Since signing with the Rangers during the summer, Voros has also become a fan favorite, crashing the net and celebrating goals with jubilant leaps into the Madison Square Garden glass.

"I get pretty jacked up after a goal," Voros admits. "You don't have a heartbeat if it doesn't feel good."

Voros says he hasn't done anything special to score 3 goals in his first 6 games.

"The guys around me make me look good," he said. "I just stand there. I have the easiest job in the rink."

Renney knows better. He believes Voros' willingness to get whacked -- by opposing goaltenders and defensemen -- makes him the perfect replacement for Avery.

"I don't want to say I'm surprised because I don't think I am," Renney said of Voros' sudden success after netting just 7 goals as a fourth-liner with Minnesota last season. "We got him for a reason."

Still, it's clear Voros is the sandpaper that makes the 'Doobie Brothers' difficult to play against.

"I think people are going to learn that's our identity - we work," he said. "We've got a lot of talent in here, and this talent works. It's a pretty mean mix, and it's going to be a fun team to watch and play with."

If Dubinsky and Voros are the hammer and nails on the Rangers' second line, Zherdev is the veneer.
"Certain guys mesh well together. That line, all the young guys, played well. That's how we're going to have to play this year. Each guy is going to have to go for it." -- Scott Gomez
Acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets during the summer to replace the enigmatic Jagr, Zherdev was a disappointment in the preseason while playing alongside Gomez and Naslund. The NO. 4 pick in the 2003 Draft, Zherdev was criticized in Columbus for his disdain for playing defense.

He was a minus-19 in 2006-07, but seemed to turn the corner under demanding head coach Ken Hitchcock last season, scoring 26 goals and finishing a more respectable minus-9.

At 23, Zherdev is still learning the English language and some believe he may return to Russia after this season. Naslund said he hopes Zherdev sticks it out and becomes the natural goal scorer everyone projects him to be.

"It's a bigger adjustment coming over from Europe than people think," Naslund said. "I've played (against) him quite a bit in the West. He has exceptional skill; he's a game-breaker who can make those moves that a lot of guys can't."

Now in the final year of his contract, Zherdev is taking a wait-and-see approach to this season. It's clear where Renney would like to see him continue his playing career.

"Whatever his options are after this year, we'd like to be No. 1 on that list," he said.

For now, Renney and the Rangers are simply hoping the time the team spent bonding in Europe during their season-opening trip and the emergence of Dubinsky, Voros and Zherdev will help offset the losses of Jagr and Brendan Shanahan and go a long way in determining the balance of power in the Atlantic Division.

"I think our guys recognize that it's a very special year for lots of reasons," Renney said. "We don't have some very good players here with us anymore, and some good men that are not with us. And I think those in our leadership group have really decided they have to step up and respond accordingly."

Dubinsky, for one, seems comfortable playing that role.

"I think I can speak for 23 guys when I say that we enjoy coming to the rink every day and working hard together and having fun together," he said. "That's certainly something that has changed here and it's exciting.

Voros agreed.

"I'm starting to realize," he said, "this might be the closest team I've ever been a part of."

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