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Rangers emerge as team to beat in East @NHLdotcom

The New York Rangers, tops in the Eastern Conference, are back. The standings say so. The owner says so.

The coach? John Tortorella, never one to shy away from his own bold statements, would rather save talk about Stanley Cups for June.

Owner James Dolan wants to talk titles in January.

Dolan made a rare visit to the postgame news conference a memorable one Tuesday night when he proclaimed the Rangers fit for a championship.

"I think we're pretty close to getting that back," Dolan said of the Stanley Cup.

Dolan credited coaching, scouting and the farm system as reasons the Rangers have emerged as the best team in the Eastern Conference. Throw in an MVP season from goalie Henrik Lundqvist, and forwards Marian Gaborik, Ryan Callahan and Brad Richards all playing some of the best hockey of their careers, and it's no wonder Dolan felt confident in touting his team as the one to beat.

Surprised by Dolan's proclamation, Tortorella wanted nothing to do with Stanley Cup predictions before the All-Star game.

"I had my owner up here talking about winning a Stanley Cup," Tortorella said. "We have to take it one game at a time."

He's right to take the cautious approach. The team that hasn't won a Stanley Cup since the magical year of 1994 doesn't figure to have an easy road back to the Canyon of Heroes.

The Eastern Conference, after all, is shaping up to be loaded with contenders.

Just a smidge past the halfway point, it's the Rangers standing atop the East as the one to knock off to reach the finals.

New York leads the NHL with 62 points entering Wednesday night, three ahead of second-place Boston in the East. The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins are up next on the schedule.

The Bruins are in no hurry to relinquish their grip on the Cup, Philadelphia and Ottawa are legitimate contenders, and Florida is in the mix.

Lundqvist has the Rangers off to their fast start with the type of season that has solidified him as the favorite for the Hart Trophy, awarded to the NHL MVP. He made 27 saves for his fourth shutout of the season in New York's 3-0 win over Nashville on Tuesday. Fans chanted "Hen-rik!" as Lundqvist won his 20th game (20-9-4) and his goals against average dropped to a sparkling 1.90.

With New York's deep defense shutting down goal scorers in front of him, Lundqvist is primed to at least walk away with the Vezina Trophy.

"I saw a great improvement in him the last quarter of last year," Tortorella said. "I think he's still getting better. He's such a competitor. I think that helps the team. It just sees how hard he competes, and he's an easy guy to pull for as a teammate.

"He feels more and more comfortable. I think he has a better understanding of what the coaching staff is looking for as far as the workload. I think he gets that now, as far as why we are going there. And I think it's helped him. I think it keeps him fresher."

Gaborik has bounced back from a 22-goal season to lead the Rangers with 23 goals and 36 points. Like Gaborik, Callahan had a disappointing 2010-11, though a broken ankle was to blame, and has 32 points.

Richards, considered the biggest prize in last summer's free-agent market, has paid early dividends on his nine-year, $60 million deal. Reunited with Tortorella, with whom he won the Stanley Cup in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Richards has been the playmaking center the Rangers sorely needed. He has 15 goals and 31 points, and he scored the winning goal on national TV in the Winter Classic to help the Rangers beat the Flyers 3-2.

While the Winter Classic went down as just one game on the schedule, it could foreshadow why the Rangers can separate themselves from the Flyers in the postseason.

Lundqvist starred in the Jan. 2 game and stopped Danny Briere's penalty shot with 19.6 seconds left to preserve the win. Flyers coach Peter Laviolette turned to Sergei Bobrovsky because offseason acquisition Ilya Bryzgalov has been shaky with his confidence and his performance.

The Flyers expected Bryzgalov to finally be the answer in net. Instead, he's raised even more questions. That looms as a huge problem for the Flyers as they chase their first championship since 1975.

The Senators remain in the thick of the race and no one would count out a team that boasts Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Daniel Alfredsson. The Senators are in the midst of a fantastic month, during which they've defeated the Flyers, Rangers and Penguins.

Boston goalie Tim Thomas, who has the postseason pedigree that can win the Bruins a second straight Cup, is 2-4 in his past six games.

"If there's one thing that you can put a finger on, then it would be easy to fix," Thomas said. "It's not. It's a whole bunch of little things adding up and combining together."

It's a small bump on the ice for the Bruins, who shook off a brief championship hangover to surge into contention in the East.

Bust out of slumps. Tinker with lines. Stay healthy. All contenders deal with those issues in the second half of the season.

Thanks to Dolan, the Rangers now have to play with Stanley Cup expectations.

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