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Roster hopefuls make a big impression

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

MSG VIDEO: Tortorella Postgame
Complete Training Camp Coverage

By Jim Cerny,

Ever since the Rangers began their training camp last Friday, head coach John Tortorella has been saying how impressed he is with the level of competition for open spots on the roster. On Thursday night in the team’s preseason opener at Madison Square Garden, that competition level ratcheted up even higher.

The Blueshirts’ 4-3 OT victory over New Jersey featured strong performances from several players – both veterans and rookies – who are looking to nail down one of those roster spots.

Rookie Derek Stepan, fresh out of the University of Wisconsin, showed no fear in his first NHL preseason game, picking up an assist on Thursday at MSG.
Although Rangers wingers Marian Gaborik -- who scored twice, including the game-winner with 1:48 to go in the extra session -- and Alex Frolov -- who recorded a three-point outing with a goal and two assists -- took their expected star turns, the victory was fueled by a strong team effort that saw players such as Derek Stepan, Brian Boyle, and Ryan McDonagh make a big impression on their coach.

“Last year I think we all could put people into spots and maybe there were one or two guys that were in a little bit of a fight,” said Tortorella. “This year, in all positions really, there are going to be some tough decisions.”

The 20 year-old Stepan suited up for his first professional game and not only centered Gaborik and Frolov over the first two periods, but found himself in the starting lineup, as well. Seemingly unfazed by all of that – which included going up against the Devils’ top line of Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, and Zach Parise much of the night -- Stepan played a smart two-way game.

Before the game was even seven minutes old, Stepan already found his way onto the scoresheet, earning the second assist on Gaborik’s game-opening goal. On the play, Stepan calmly cruised into the high slot, received a pass, found Frolov to the left of the net, and then celebrated his first point when Gaborik converted Frolov’s tic-tac-toe pass.

“It was a special feeling and a lot of fun,” said Stepan. “It was a power-play opportunity where I just handed it off to Frolov and he did the rest, finding Gabby on the back door. I’ll take that all day.”

Stepan logged over 18 minutes of ice-time, playing on both specialty teams as well as at even strength. He won 50 percent of his faceoffs and fired four shots on goal, just behind Frolov and Ruslan Fedotenko, who each had six, for the team lead.

“He played very good,” Gaborik said of Stepan. “He was not afraid to make a play, get a hit, or give a hit. I think he was good defensively. For the first game, he played very good.”

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Stepan’s University of Wisconsin teammate, and also a first-year pro, McDonagh was paired on defense with veteran Michal Rozsival and played just under 20 minutes. His passes, for the most part, were crisp and confident, and he stood up to the repeated challenges posed by the fleet Devils forwards.

Perhaps most impressive about his game was that McDonagh quickly erased his mistakes by making positive plays.

A prime example of this occurred with 7:30 remaining in the third period when McDonagh completely missed a hip check along the boards, springing the New Jersey puck carrier Bradley Mills on right wing. Instead of panicking, McDonagh swiftly reacted, using his long reach to poke the puck off Mills’ stick even though he, himself, was falling to the ice.

“McDonagh did some good things,” said Tortorella. “He’s going to play some more exhibition games and I think he’s going to feel more comfortable. He had some really good shifts, and at other times it was a little bit of a struggle. But we expect that. We’ll just keep going through the process with him and see where he’s at.”

While both Stepan and McDonagh are rookies looking to earn NHL roster spots on their first try, Boyle was a member of last year’s Rangers squad. But he, too, is in a battle to be on the team because of all the centers that are currently in camp.

Boyle continued his strong September by scoring a goal and playing an imposing physical game on Thursday. Lauded by Tortorella throughout training camp, so far, for his improved skating, excellent conditioning, and increased physical play, Boyle continued to play as a man aware that his job is on the line.

“I think Brian Boyle wants to improve,” Tortorella said. “And I think that he has looked at the people that are here and knows where he’s at. He’s had a very good camp, so far.”

Four minutes into the game, Boyle took his first shift of the night, and it was one to remember. The 6-foot-6 center hammered three different Devils with explosive checks along the boards, revving up the crowd at MSG in the process. At the end of his shift Boyle was challenged to a fight by New Jersey’s Adam Mair, with Boyle obliging and receiving a five-minute major.

A very happy Brian Boyle, right, is congratulated by linemate Derek Boogaard after scoring in the second period against the Devils.
“That was fun,” said Boyle. “It’s really great to come back after a long summer with that bad taste in your mouth and hear the crowd roar on your first shift. That was a blast. But it’s one good game. I have to keep going.”

Boyle’s physical play continued throughout the game, and at 14:21 of the second period he added a goal to his performance. Boyle worked his way around an Eric Gelinas check along the boards, accepted a pass from Dale Weise -- another player battling for a roster spot -- and then used his long reach to curl the puck past Martin Brodeur and into the net, giving the Rangers a 3-2 lead at the time.

He also came close to an assist 9:40 into the third period when his improved skating was on display as he burst past defenseman Matt Corrente on left wing to collect a loose puck, though his centering feed to Weise was chipped over the net and off the glass.

With five more pre-season games left to play, Stepan, McDonagh, Boyle, and all the other players fighting for a chance to be a Ranger this season still have plenty of opportunities to impress the coaching staff.

The next chance will come on Saturday night, when the Rangers again face the Devils, this time in Newark at the Prudential Center.
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