-- John Tortorella was very blunt about his first impression of defenseman Anton Stralman
"I didn't know who the hell he was when we got him," Tortorella said. "When I first saw him, I didn't like him."
Signing the 25-year-old Stralman on Nov. 5 was something of a necessity. The Rangers were carrying only six defensemen and were already without Marc Staal
, who hasn't played a game this season due to complications from a concussion, and would eventually lose blueliners Michael Sauer
, Steve Eminger
and Jeff Woywitka
to injuries in the weeks that followed.
Those injuries have thrust Stralman onto the team's second defense pairing with Michael Del Zotto
for the past three games. Stralman has answered in a big way, especially during the Rangers' 4-2 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers
on Friday night. He had an assist and was plus-1 in a season-high 24:20 of ice time.
Stralman also had four hits, including a bone-jarring hip check of Matt Read
during the first period. The Swedish-born defender had just 11 hits in nine games with the Rangers, but he made his presence felt physically throughout Friday's game.
"Strals is coming," Tortorella said. "I think as the minutes have gone his way, he's understood how hard we want him to play as far as defending, because he does have offense. He can make a play. But we wanted him a little bit stiffer defensively. He's certainly done that for us. He protects pucks. But as the minutes have gone along, he has certainly answered and raised his level."
The same can be said for rookies Stu Bickel
and Tim Erixon
, who have been forced to answer the bell with Sauer and Eminger suffering serious injuries this month.
In three games since being called up after Eminger's injury, Bickel has four points -- all assists -- and is plus-4. The 25-year-old hasn't seen the ice all that much, but he's made the most of his time. Two of the assists came Friday when he fired point shots from nearly identical spots that were redirected into the net by Derek Stepan
and Ruslan Fedotenko
"We're trying to put him in the right spots," Tortorella said. "There have been some struggles along the way, which is to be expected. He plays nine minutes and gets a couple points, so it's been good. It's good experience for him to play against a team like that, and I thought our team defense was good tonight through the neutral zone."
All three of Bickel's game have come against division rivals -- the Devils, Islanders and Flyers -- during a four-day span. He said the playoff-like environment against the Flyers made the game more special.
"It was really great," Bickel said. "I felt like the fans were able to help us out and we were able to kind of build off of that. It's been awesome. It has been a whirlwind since getting called up, but it's been nice to be able to jump in and play a role right away and contribute a little bit."
The 20-year-old Erixon was given a chance to stick with the Rangers to start the season with Staal out, but he failed to register a point in nine games and was minus-2 when he was sent down to Connecticut of the AHL.
Defense - NYR
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 0
SOG: 5 | +/-: 0
Since his return three games ago, he does not have a point, but he's been much more solid defensively. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist
said despite all the injuries to his defensemen, he hasn't noticed a drop-off in the unit's play.
"The coaches have done a good job of putting down a structure that helps the whole team, but especially the d-guys," Lundqvist said. "They know their roles and how we have to play to have success. If it's your first game or second game or whatever, to have that structure helps you when you're under pressure."
With Friday's win, the Rangers' fourth in a row, they head into the two-day Christmas break as leaders of the Atlantic Division and second in the Eastern Conference. The last three wins in this streak have come with Stralman, Bickel and Erixon playing far bigger roles than anyone expected.
But without them, the Rangers might not be in as good a mood over the holiday weekend.
"It's huge. You need that to have a successful team," captain Ryan Callahan
said. "With a team, there's going to be injuries and guys missing games throughout the year. In order for the team to keep winning and have success, we have to have guys who can step in and play. Our d-core has done that all year. "
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo