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Michael Del Zotto a bright spot

Michael Del Zotto warms up prior to a

Michael Del Zotto warms up prior to a game against the Florida Panthers. (Nov. 23, 2011) Credit: Getty Images

As injuries relentlessly pile up for the Rangers’ defense, one consistent bright spot has been third-year defender Michael Del Zotto, a former first-round pick who has come into his own this season.

Coach John Tortorella has praised the 21-year-old extensively — a dramatic turnabout from last year, when he was sent down to the AHL after 47 games.

“He’s a very important guy to us right now,” Tortorella said. “It’s a good lesson — you can’t give up on those players that are going through that process. You just never know when they’re going to fully mature.”

The Rangers’ defensive depth seems to be getting thinner by the hour — defender Jeff Woywitka was the latest down man, scratched before Tuesday’s game — but Del Zotto has become a stabilizer on the second line. He came into the Devils game with 10 points in his last 11 games and leads the team with a plus-15 rating.

Beyond the statistics, though, Tortorella said he’s noticed the biggest difference in Del Zotto’s maturity. A humbling 2010-11 season may have something to do with that.

“Little by little he’s learning what it is to be a pro — the consistency in preparation that is needed,” Tortorella said. “That’s before he even gets on the ice. On the ice, he has been a very physical defenseman for us as far as time and space.”

New York Sports