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Rangers ready for first preseason test

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
Defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who will make his NHL preseason debut vs. the Devils on Thursday, checks Rangers alternate captain Vinny Prospal into the boards in Wednesday's Blue-White scrimmage.

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Saying that he has “a good feeling in my gut” about his team through the first six days of training camp, Rangers head coach John Tortorella is excited to see his players finally square off against another team on Thursday when the Blueshirts welcome the New Jersey Devils into Madison Square Garden for their first preseason contest.

“The camp has gone very well, so far,” said Tortorella, following Wednesday’s full squad scrimmage in which the White Team, backstopped by Henrik Lundqvist, defeated the Blue Team 6-1. “Nothing translates into wins and losses yet, but I just feel good about where we are right now as far as the attitude of the camp. We have only six games to evaluate players, so I am looking forward to getting started with that (on Thursday).”

Tortorella has said there is strong competition for roster spots at all positions on the team except for goaltender, where Lundqvist and Martin Biron are set in their respective roles. He is eager to see how the fight for roles at the center-ice position plays out, and sees a very healthy fight shaping up at the defense position, as well.

Right off the bat, Tortorella will get a look at two new centers on Thursday evening, as both 20-year-old rookie Derek Stepan and 24-year-old former Buffalo Sabre Tim Kennedy will be in the lineup. Both players have impressed Tortorella in the first week of camp.

“Kennedy is a guy I hadn’t seen play much, but I am impressed with his skill level and his quickness on his skates, and I am anxious to see him play in the exhibition season,” Tortorella said. “Stepan is a young kid that has a lot going for him and we’ve kind of put him in the process here now. He’s one of the better players we have in terms of offensive awareness. Now we’ll see him play in some exhibition games, and we’ll see what happens there.”

Tortorella will also get an in-game look at three defensemen who are shooting for spots on the opening night roster on Thursday. Rookie Ryan McDonagh, 2005 second-round draft choice Mike Sauer, and veteran Alexei Semenov, in camp on a tryout, will all be in the lineup against the Devils.

Henrik Lundqvist was the winning netminder in the Blue-White scrimmage on Wednesday, allowing just one goal on the rebound of a penalty-shot attempt.
“(Wednesday) was an encouraging day for (Sauer) so I am anxious to see him play in a game,” Tortorella said of the 23-year-old defenseman’s performance in the Blue-White scrimmage. “He’s a good kid who has really worked on his conditioning. There’s a great battle shaping up on the back end. I want to see what we’ve got.”

Along with evaluating personnel, Tortorella and his staff have several other items to address on their agenda during the six preseason contests.

“As far as each group that comes through in each exhibition game, we start teaching our team concept now, also, and look at defensive pairs, line combinations, things like that,” explained the head coach.

During Wednesday’s scrimmage, which was played under regular game conditions with three 60-minute periods and the players wearing Rangers home and away jerseys, the White Team scored four goals in the first period -- and jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the second -- before finishing off the Blue squad 6-1.

Although barely tested in the opening period, Lundqvist was extremely sharp in the final two periods. Early in the second period, he made his best save, lunging to his right to rob a wide-open attempt by Sean Avery. Midway through the second period, he was in perfect position to smother a quick shot by Stepan from 10 feet out.

The only goal Lundqvist allowed was one that would not have been recorded if this was an actual NHL game. Lundqvist denied Michal Rozsival’s penalty shot attempt late in the middle stanza; but whereas in a regulation game play would have been stopped after the save and a faceoff would have taken place, the scrimmage rules allowed the rebound to be played. As such Dale Weise crept in and poked the puck over the goal line.

Ryan Callahan scored twice for the White Team in the first period. He opened the scoring by jamming a shot between Biron’s pads 6:44 into the scrimmage and then roofed a penalty shot into the top of the cage at 17:23 to make the score 4-0.

Kris Newbury scored off a right-wing shot after he stole the puck at the Blue Team’s blueline, and Artem Anisimov sent a wicked snap shot past Biron off a rush up ice, for the other two goals scored by the White squad in the opening 20 minutes.

Rangers center Artem Anisimov turned in a strong performance in Wednesday morning's Blue-White scrimmage at the MSG Training Center, earning praise from Blueshirts head coach John Tortorella.
“Not just the goal, but I thought he had a really good scrimmage, period,” Tortorella said of Anisimov. “I thought he was confident with the puck, made a lot of nice three- to four-foot passes, was really good away from the puck. I think this was one of his better days (in camp).”

Sauer upped the White Team’s lead to 5-0 at 7:58 of the second when he fired a slap shot through a screen from the blueline. Brandon Dubinsky closed out the scoring with a pretty toe-drag move followed by a quick shot through Biron’s five-hole at 7:30 of the third period.

Dylan McIlrath, the Rangers 2010 first-round draft pick, made a confident rush up ice to set up Dubinsky’s goal. McIlrath was in the lineup because two veteran defensemen -- Wade Redden and Steve Eminger -- could not play. Redden was with his wife, who is expecting the couple’s first child, and Eminger sat out with a sore groin.

McIlrath played a solid game, even making a highlight-reel defensive play when he raced back down ice to catch up to Avery, who was on a breakaway, and took the rugged winger off the puck before he could take a shot on goal.

“I had a boatload of confidence after that because that play, in particular, really got my game going,” said McIlrath, 18, who likely will be headed back to his major junior team in Moose Jaw later in the week. “After that I was able to make better plays, on the offensive side of the puck, too. I thought after that my game really took off.”

After the scrimmage, Tortorella said that he expects about 22-26 players to be sent back to their major-junior or minor-league teams by the end of the weekend. The younger players will take part in a rookie game on Thursday afternoon against the Devils at New Jersey.

From this point on, Tortorella and his staff will ramp up the evaluation process in earnest as the Rangers look to build on their strong start to training camp.

“I think the intensity in camp comes from the demand the coaches have put on the players,” said Biron. “I think the more demanding you are, the more the players are going to respond to that. We are professionals. The more you ask, the more you will get. That’s why things are working so well, so far.”
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