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Tortorella: Rangers 'have to be better'

by John Manasso
ATLANTA -- New York Rangers coach John Tortorella, ever the taskmaster, hardly seemed satisfied with his team's 5-2 victory over Atlanta on Friday that resuscitated its playoff hopes, which had begun to falter after an 0-2-2 spell.

Tortorella's unyielding microscope focused particularly on the team's play at even strength. Two power-play goals and an empty-net goal proved the difference.

He said the Rangers played in spurts and he did not like their defensive zone play, focusing on a missed clearing opportunity that resulted in a goal.

Nonetheless, he gave his players credit for grinding out a win.

"It's a win, it's a huge two points," Tortorella said, "but we have some pretty good teams coming up here -- and I'm not disrespecting Atlanta here, but these teams are better that we have coming up and we have to be better."

Next up for the Rangers is Atlantic Division rival Philadelphia, currently sixth in the Eastern Conference with 74 points, five better than the Rangers, at 3 p.m. on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.

Tuesday the Rangers host seventh-place Montreal and after a Thursday date at home with St. Louis they go on the road on March 21 for a huge contest with Boston, current occupier of the East's eighth and final playoff spot.

While he criticized their concentration and situational play, one positive in Tortorella's evaluation of the Rangers should be that on Friday no player finished a minus. He had only mild praise for the even-strength play of his top line of Marian Gaborik, Olli Jokinen and Vinny Prospal, though Prospal netted two goals and Gaborik one. Two of those three scores came on the power play.

During the four-game losing streak, Prospal had been even in those games but Jokinen was a net minus-2 and Gaborik was minus-1, having played in only three of them because of an injury.

"I thought there were a couple of shifts late in the third period where they were playing underneath the hashmarks and holding onto it," Tortorella said. "It's still a work in progress, playing away from the puck as a line. Again, I don't want to turn them into checkers, but this time of year we're going to need more from all our lines."

Like Boston, whom they are chasing, scoring goals can be a struggle for the Rangers so keeping them out of their own net is of primary importance. The Rangers rank 23rd in the League at 2.59 goals per game. (Boston is last at 2.36.)

So it was a blessing for Gaborik, whose 36 goals rank fifth in the NHL, to get back on the board for the first time since a pre-Olympic tilt with New Jersey on Feb. 6.

"Getting the opportunity to be put out there in those crucial moments, it's always great when you get rewarded or when you get the trust that you have from your coach if you give it back," Prospal said of the line's scoring on Friday. "Obviously, Gabby's a great goal-scorer and he needed the one that he got tonight to get going because he's been battling some injuries lately and there was the Olympics and stuff like that.

"We need him to score every game."

They need him to score every game because secondary scoring for the Rangers is a struggle. Prospal's 17 goals tie him for second on the team with Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky has 16, but after that no one has more than Chris Drury's 11. (Jokinen has 13 on the season, but only two in 11 games since arriving in a trade from Calgary.)

"Our top players really stepped up tonight, played really well, moved the puck really well," goalie Henrik Lundqvist said on Friday. "It's huge. You can see the guys get confidence and play more relaxed. Instead of hunt for everything, we let the game come to us."

So call it a start.

"We still have a number of concentration situations and just ebbs and flows of games and situational play that still isn't where it's supposed to be at this time of year, and when we play against a better team it'll bite us," Tortorella said. "So we need to correct that."

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