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Gaborik-Richards duo clicks in first start

by Dave Lozo

NEWARK, N.J. -- It took just two shifts and a fortunate bounce for Brad Richards to make his presence felt as a member of the New York Rangers.

The summer's crown jewel of free agency scored 4:22 into the first period Friday night when his pass for Wojtek Wolski clipped off the skate of New Jersey Devils defenseman Adam Larsson and past goaltender Martin Brodeur. The goal came seconds after Richards put the puck on a tee to set up consecutive shots for Wolski and Marian Gaborik, and that trio was dangerous throughout the contest.

Richards added an assist on Gaborik's second-period power-play goal as the Rangers squeezed out a 4-3 victory in front of 14,719 at Prudential Center.

Sure, it was merely a two-point game -- a two-point preseason game -- against a team that was resting a lot of its key forwards. When Richards looks back on his career, it's doubtful he'll speak longingly about that time he accidentally scored in a game that didn't mean anything.

But it was an encouraging sign that Richards was able to mesh well with Gaborik, who seemed to lose his way a little bit last season, scoring just 22 goals in 62 games after scoring 42 in 76 games during his first season as a Ranger in 2009-10. Each had a goal and an assist Friday, but both felt they could have had more.

"It's different. I've never played with a guy like Gabby that's so talented 1-on-1," Richards said. "That's a lot different. That's part of your job, to adapt. Not everybody gets to hand pick their wingers in this League. I'm very excited to play with Marian. If I can get him the puck with his speed, he'll have chances."


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It's going to take time, but there was a lot to like about how they clicked in their first game together.

"It's going to take a little bit," Richards said. "But this time of year, it wouldn't matter if I played with someone I played with my whole life. You're struggling out there to find your legs and get in shape. It's not like midseason. Twenty seconds into a shift and you're starting to fade out there. It wouldn't matter who you're playing with. That's just this time of year. For the first night, it's good to get one under the belt."

A playmaking center is something Gaborik has lacked in his two seasons with the Rangers. It's forced the speedy winger to create his own scoring chances by carrying the puck and essentially doing everything on his own. With the vision and skill of Richards, however, that's no longer the case. Gaborik is happy to dish the puck to Richards and wait to reap the rewards of playing alongside such a skilled passer.

"When you have a guy like that on your line, you can trust him," Gaborik said. "When he's open, you just try to get lost and get open. He's going to either put it on my stick or when there's guys on me, he's going to find an open man. It helps a lot that we got someone like that. He's one of the best playmakers in the League."

Richards nearly sprang Gaborik for a pair of breakaways, but both times the puck bounced at that last moment. It was a rare offensive blemish, as the line of Wolski-Richards-Gaborik combined for five points and 11 shots.

The key for coach John Tortorella will be finding a left wing who can play with Richards and Gaborik. On Friday, Wolski looked very comfortable playing with a pair of elite talents. But Tortorella wouldn't commit to Wolski as that third guy on the line, instead saying he'll try different things as the preseason progresses.

"I thought that line created a lot of offense," Tortorella said. "We'll see. We'll try some other people along the way here and just see how it develops."

Richards wasn't flawless in his Rangers debut. His turnover in the second period led directly to a goal by Devils forward Jacob Josefson, who played very well in a losing effort. That mistake didn't escape Tortorella's eye.

"I thought Ritchie played well," Tortorella said. "That turnover changes the game a little bit, but those are the things we need to get out of our game if we want to keep the momentum."

Richards also delivered immediately on the power play. The Rangers utilized a five-forward attack with the man advantage, using Richards and Wolski at the point with Gaborik, Ryan Callahan and Brian Boyle down low. It's a strategy so new for Tortorella that he only implemented it Friday morning during the team's practice in Greenburgh, N.Y.

That five-man group was responsible for the team's lone power-play goal, scored by Gaborik early in the second period. Callahan had his backhand attempt from the side of the net denied by Brodeur, but a streaking Gaborik beat Devils forward Rod Pelley to the loose puck and slammed it home to make it 3-1 for the Rangers.

There weren't any hiccups defensively from the Rangers when those five forwards were on the ice together. Tim Sestito tried to slip past Wolski during a shorthanded 2-on-2 rush, but Wolski held his ground and turned away Sestito like a veteran defenseman.

That five-forward alignment is just another luxury provided by having Richards. It remains to be seen if the Rangers will stick with that look when the games count, but the players enjoyed having all that offensive creativity on the ice at the same time.

"For our first time doing it, we had some good zone time and some good breakouts," Richards said. "We just want to bury a few more. We only worked on it this morning, so hopefully that will keep getting better. We got one, so hopefully we can build on that."

"It's going to last until we make some turnovers," said Gaborik, who's probably correct about that. "We have to think about getting back as well. With five forwards, there's really not any defensive guys out there. We just have to be careful. We got scored on a lot last year on our power play (just four times, actually), so we just have to be aware of that. We scored on the power play, but we could've scored a couple more.

"So far, so good."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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