Surging Rangers get a breather

Marc Staal #18 of the New York Rangers Marc Staal #18 of the New York Rangers skates against the Florida Panthers. (Jan. 5, 2012) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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Everybody needs a break, particularly a hard-working team such as the Rangers, who have won nine of 10 and sit atop the entire NHL with 56 points.

So after a short, light practice Saturday, coach John Tortorella sent them off to unwind. "They'll have a full day and a half off" before practicing Monday, he said. "I think they need to get away, not so much physically, but to mentally recharge."

Derek Stepan, the sophomore center for Marian Gaborik and Artem Anisimov, needs the hiatus as much as anyone.

Since a two-goal, one-assist game Dec. 11 against Florida, Stepan, a savvy playmaker, has struggled. He had one goal and five assists in 11 games before scoring a gimme on Marc- Andre Fleury's miscue in Pittsburgh Friday night.

"My game hasn't been where it needs to be," Stepan, 21, said yesterday. "I'm not the fastest skater, so I have to be smart out there, and I don't know whether it's mental or physical, maybe both. I've had some good minutes, but we're evaluating what I need to be doing."

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For Stepan, who has nine goals and 18 assists in 39 games, it simply could be the sort of slump that ensnares every player. "I'd been doing well until the last couple of weeks,'' he said.

The Rangers are "lucky that we've got depth . . . guys on other lines have been doing well and we're winning," he said. "That makes it easier. "

Tortorella acknowledged Stepan's lapses, both mentally and physically. "It happens,'' he said. "It had been our most consistent line. When an offensive line has problems, you work on your defense; that's how we're going to approach it. When you go through a seven- or eight-month season, it's not about applying more pressure on the areas where he's struggling. Step gets it; he'll get through it."

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