Brian Boyle was a valuable piece for the Rangers in last year's playoffs, with a goal and assist in the Stanley Cup Final against the Kings, controlling draws, playing shorthanded and using his 6-7 frame to protect pucks and deliver checks.

Boyle, who played five years with the Rangers and left for the Lightning as a free agent last summer, played all 82 regular-season games, scoring 15 goals and 24 points. The 30-year-old Hingham, Massachusetts, native and ardent Red Sox fan also played 13 playoff games for the Lightning against Detroit and Montreal, with a goal and an assist.

Boyle did not practice Friday and did not play in Tampa Bay's 2-1 loss Saturday because of an undisclosed injury. He returned for Game 2 on Monday night and took a holding penalty at 3:38 of the first period.

In a brief conversation after practice at Madison Square Garden, Boyle, whose wife is expecting the couple's first child any day, told Newsday that he was feeling a little better. Asked if he was improving physically, Boyle responded, "I hope so," before heading into the trainer's room.

Boyle, who is believed to have back spasms that nagged him at times during his Rangers days, was not made available to the media after practice. Coach Jon Cooper said, "The update is there is no update."

In New York, Boyle, who is not the fastest of skaters, wanted more ice time but couldn't be promised that, so he accepted a three-year, $6-million contract with the Lightning, who did not want to drop into a 0-2 hole yesterday before flying to Tampa for Game 3 on Wednesday.

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"Sure, he's missed," said Ryan Callahan, who has played with Boyle in both New York and Tampa. "Same guy you saw. He does so much for us, the penalty kill, wins faceoffs."

In the playoffs, Boyle led Tampa in time on ice on the penalty kill at 2:49 per game, and was first in faceoff percentage (.537).

In other words, Boyle, who had points in every series as the Rangers made the run to the Cup Final, provides intangibles. "On the forecheck, he gets in and makes his presence there," Tyler Johnson said. "Hopefully, he can get back here. Other guys need to step up now."

Cooper put it bluntly: "Instead of the first game of the conference finals, it was like Game 53," he said after the morning skate, "and we can't play it like that. So our will has to be stronger. Our determination has to be stronger. And the group, every time they've been challenged, has found a way to elevate themselves. It's unfortunate that we're down 0-1. It was probably a little bit of an eye-opening experience for us, but our will has got to be stronger."