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Blueshirts back in business with high expectations

Brad Richards #19 of the New York Rangers

Brad Richards #19 of the New York Rangers (Credit: Brad Richards #19 of the New York Rangers (Getty Images))

After a mind-numbing lockout that threatened to cancel the NHL season again, Rangers fans can finally get back to the business of following their beloved Blueshirts' pursuit of a Stanley Cup beginning Saturday night in Boston. Here are four issues/questions facing the Eastern Conference runners-up during the 48-game sprint to the playoffs.

A gentler Torts?
Head coach John Tortorella admitted in a radio interview Tuesday that his usual "Torture-ella" training tactics - e.g. constant grinding, relentless conditioning and an emphasis on death-defying puck-blocking - would likely be counterproductive to the Rangers' ability to stay healthy during the lockout-abbreviated campaign.

"We have to be careful not to force feed. It's a big worry," Tortorella admitted before revealing that he would consult daily with his team leaders in regard to how hard they should be pushed leading up to the season's start.

Are they tough enough?
The Rangers prided themselves on playing a playoff-brand of hockey en route to the Eastern Conference's top points total a season ago. But the losses of Brandon Proust via free agency and grinder Brandon Dubinsky in the blockbuster deal for Columbus forward Rick Nash might leave them short in toughness, a key element to any team's success.

Great expectations
Being the "team to beat" isn't necessarily a blessing in the New York market, especially with expectations going through the roof after the Rangers' near-miss of the Stanley Cup Finals back in May.

"We're not sneaking up on anybody this season," Tortorella noted. "Before you can win, you need to believe you're going to win."

As always, the Rangers will be the most closely scrutinized of all the tri-state area hockey clubs. Their Stanley Cup-or-bust mentality will begin to weight heavily on them if they don't get off to a hot start.

Chemistry experiment
Though all 32 NHL squads will have to deal with fitting new players into the lineup during the abbreviated season, the Rangers thrived on a team-first, win-at-all-costs mentality last season that may not be as easy for new additions such as Nash, Jeff Halpern, Aaron Asham and Taylor Pratt to fit into before the playoffs.

Tortorella's goal is to get everyone on the same page and, most importantly, healthy before the NHL's "real season" begins.

Players to watch

King Henrik
As always, the Rangers' success hinges on the performance of arguably the best goaltender in the world, reigning Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist. "The King" is the only goalie in NHL history to record at least 30 wins in each of his first seven seasons, though that run is likely to end during the abbreviated slate. "If we get to the playoffs, we have to have a healthy goalie," Tortorella admitted. Lundqvist should benefit from the extended break after being in net for a combined 82 games last season, including 20 in the playoffs.

The final piece
Though he arrives on Broadway as the alleged missing ingredient to the Rangers' Stanley Cup formula, high-scoring forward Rick Nash has never played in a single playoff game after nine fruitless years in Columbus. Also, the 28-year-old Ontario native will have to deal with the world's largest media market after escaping scrutiny during his time in small-city Ohio.

The Great Gabs-by
Marian Gaborik's memorable triple-overtime game-winner against Washington in the conference semifinals was the highlight of an otherwise unproductive postseason for the enigmatic forward. The reigning All-Star Game MVP should benefit greatly from the presence of Nash, as well as last year's big addition, Brad Richards.


Don't count out Brodeur, Devils

The Devils went from a seemingly harmless six seed to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011-12 behind first-year coach Pete DeBoer and future Hall of Fame netminder Martin Brodeur, who got some long-overdue revenge on their nemesis Rangers with a brilliant performance in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Losing Zach Parise to free agency and having to split time in net between the 40-year-old Brodeur and 35-year-old Johan Hedberg could be problematic during the condensed schedule. But budding young playmaker Adam Henrique, and returning stars such as $100 million forward Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac, will likely help the Devils return to the playoffs, albeit with another low seed.

Remember when the NHL played 48 games following the lockout before the 1994-95 season? The Devils wound up lifting the first of their three Stanley Cup trophies. Never underestimate this team's resilience, as evidenced by their near escape from an 0-3 series hole to Los Angeles in the Finals before succumbing in six hard-fought games.


Isles' struggle to continue

The Islanders haven't made the playoffs since 2006-07, enduring five consecutive last-place division finishes during the miserable stretch that has ensued.

The good news is that they've found a new home in Brooklyn beginning in 2015, but that won't provide much immediate comfort for a franchise that, at Nassau Coliseum, has one of the lowest attendance figures in the league.

Budding stars John Tavares and Matt Moulson, along with the ever-steady presence of Frans Nielsen and a resurgent Kyle Okposo, could generate some excitement in Uniondale if the Isles catch fire in the early going. Enigmatic, oft-injured goaltender Rick DiPietro remains an albatross with nearly a decade remaining on one of, if not the worst, contracts in sports history at $67.5 million over 15 years.

As the Nets learned during their final few lame-duck years in East Rutherford and Newark, "Hello Brooklyn!" can't come soon enough when you're losing on a regular basis. Another high draft pick is likely awaiting the Isles in 2013.

Tags: SPORTS

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