GREENBURGH, N.Y. - Matt Gilroy made his AHL debut Friday night in Hartford. That's not exactly how the 25-year-old from North Bellmore envisioned his first pro season going this far in. But the Rangers demoted Gilroy on Thursday, not as a punishment but as a way of building the rookie into a more well-rounded NHL defenseman.

"We've really struggled with Matt in trying to teach him that instead of mirroring [an opponent], closing, trying to get people off pucks," John Tortorella said after the Rangers practiced without Gilroy at the MSG Training Center. "We've explained it to him, we've showed it to him. We still don't think he totally understands. And there's not a better place in the world than going to the American League, where everyone chases you around, to figure out how to play in traffic and be involved in those type of situations."

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Tortorella was quick to point out that Gilroy is not the only culprit on a defensive corps that gets most of its physical play from 19-year-old Michael Del Zotto and occasionally from the Dan Girardi-Marc Staal duo.

Ilkka Heikkinen, who stuck around in Gilroy's spot after starting the season in Hartford, is staying and playing Saturday against the Sabres for basically one reason. "He hits," Tortorella said.

Tortorella dismissed the perception that Gilroy was demoted after being on the ice for the tying and overtime winning goals in Chicago on Wednesday.

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"Honestly, the last goal wasn't his fault. We had a -- backcheck by one of our top players [Marian Gaborik]," Tortorella said. "Even the tying goal, we've got [Brian] Boyle and [Wade Redden] picking their noses, too.''

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Notes & quotes: C Brandon Dubinsky (broken hand) practiced fully for the first time since his Nov. 7 injury. He should be back by next week.