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SportsColumnistsColin Stephenson

Rangers building a strong base through AHL's Hartford Wolf Pack

Rangers center Filip Chytil skates against the Washington

Rangers center Filip Chytil skates against the Washington Capitals during the first period of an NHL hockey game at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

When Filip Chytil and Ryan Lindgren got called up from the Rangers’ Hartford farm team, they were ready to play right away.

Chytil, who failed to make the Rangers out of training camp despite being the first choice to be the second-line center, scored a goal in the first game after his recall, and scored again in the next game. He entered Saturday night’s game in Montreal with six goals and two assists in 11 games for the Rangers.

Lindgren, a rugged, defensive-minded defenseman, had a goal and four assists — the first points of his NHL career — in his first 10 games entering Saturday. And the team was 6-4-1 since their callup.

Tim Gettinger, who was called up from Hartford on Sunday when Lias Andersson was sent down, got his first NHL point with an assist in Friday’s 4-1 road loss to Ottawa.

Part of the reason all three players were ready to contribute is because the Rangers made a point to improve the Hartford team this season. The Rangers fired Hartford coach Keith McCambridge after two playoff-less seasons, including a last-place finish in the AHL’s Atlantic Division last season. In late July they hired 40-year-old Kris Knoblauch, a former Flyers assistant, as the new coach and a few days later brought on veteran coach Gord Murphy to be associate coach.

And the Wolf Pack has started out fabulously. Despite a couple of consecutive losses on Wednesday and Friday, Hartford entered Saturday night’s matchup with Syracuse as the top team in the Atlantic Division and the No. 2 team in the league overall, with a record of 11-3-5, for 27 points.

The team is winning, the players there are happy to be there, and the team plays the same systems the Rangers do, so when players are called up, they know how to play the way the big club does. That wasn’t the case last season.

“It's so vital to have an environment down there where guys are getting better, and they feel like they're prepared when they get here,’’ Rangers coach David Quinn said about the goings on in Hartford. “Kris and his staff done a great job down there.’’

Knoblauch, who is in his first year as a head coach at the professional level, said it was important for him and his staff to gain the trust of the players. The best way to do that was to get to know them as quickly as they could.

“I think anytime a new coaching staff comes in, there's a lot of changes and there's a lot of uncertainty,’’ Knoblauch said. “But more importantly, getting to know the players. What does Steven Fogarty do? Or Vinni Lettieri? What's their game, how do they help our team win? And, you know, after some time watching them play in practice, you get an understanding what they contribute.’’

Hartford center Boo Nieves, who is in his fourth season with the club, said the atmosphere there is completely different than it was in the past.

“Everybody's bought in, you know, we have a good a good group of younger guys — and I'm 25, and I'm saying younger as in 21-, 22-year-old guys — and they've all they've all bought in, and they've all been doing everything from blocking shots to, you know, doing whatever it is they need to do,’’ Nieves said.  “Guys aren't worrying about their individual stats… who's scoring, or who's getting the assists.’’

Knoblauch heaped much of the credit for the team’s early success on the play of goaltenders Igor Shesterkin and Adam Huska. Shesterkin, considered the heir apparent to Henrik Lundqvist, is the No. 1 goalie, and while he’s cooled off a little after a hot start, he’s still among the AHL goaltending leaders with a 2.06 goals-against average, a .927 save percentage and a 7-3-2 record. Huska, whom Knoblauch called his “1B,’’ was 4-0-3, with a 2.07 GAA and a .923 save percentage.

Nieves said the team is getting contributions from everyone, and he spoke about the team’s bottom six forwards, who he said are playing hard defensively, killing penalties, getting pucks out of their own zone and deep into the offensive zone. In other words, doing all the little things that win games. And all the things that the Rangers need them to do whenever they get called up.

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