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New faces got Rangers on winning track

Derick Brassard, left, celebrates his second goal of

Derick Brassard, left, celebrates his second goal of the game against the Florida Panthers along with Ryane Clowe at 16:35 of the third period at Madison Square Garden. (April 18, 2013) Credit: Getty

The pieces came together at the right time. In the end, you can trace the upswing in the Rangers season to a hot goaltender, late-season roster changes and clutch plays by captain Ryan Callahan.

After a summer of great expectations with the signing of elite scorer Rick Nash, the Blueshirts struggled early. With the lockout and a shortened training camp, they started 4-5 and were just 14-12-2 in mid-March.

Last season's leading scorer, winger Marian Gaborik, was having a subpar season, and was at odds with coach John Tortorella, who shifted him to left wing and dropped him to the lower lines.

One of the team's top defenseman, Marc Staal, was struck in the eye with a puck on March 5 and lost for the rest of the regular season. Center Derek Stepan was having a terrific all-around year, and Nash was as advertised, but something was missing.

Changes were made.

Mats Zuccarello was signed on March 28, after a season in the KHL. Ryane Clowe was acquired from the San Jose Sharks on April 2 for two draft picks, and center Derick Brassard, defenseman John Moore and winger Derek Dorsett arrived from Columbus in a trade for Gaborik.

"The dynamic changed, in the room and on the ice,'' said Henrik Lundqvist, who also returned to Vezina Trophy form, posting a 13-5-2 record with a 1.78 goals against average in the turnaround, as the Rangers rose to sixth place in the Eastern Conference standings on the final day of the season. They will face the third-place Washington Capitals this week in the first round of the playoffs.

The moves "allowed us to have a little more consistency in the middle of our lineup,'' Tortorella said. "These guys have come in and added some more grind to our game and more skill.''

Clowe, a 6-2 winger, was part of the grind, and totaled three goals and eight points in 12 games before being injured against Carolina on Thursday. Zuccarello, the diminutive Norwegian whose playmaking skills have blossomed since his last turn with the Rangers in 2011-12, had a game-winning shootout goal against Toronto on April 10, as well as three goals and six points in the last seven games. Brassard, filling a void at center with Brad Richards struggling, had five goals and 11 points in 13 games, and surprisingly, Moore has stepped in admirably, with six points and a plus-nine rating in the 13 games.

Credit the heart-and-soul play of the gritty Callahan as the driving force. He closed with a career-high seven-game point streak and 16 points in the final 14 games, but more importantly, teammates followed his intense example, and regained their identity.

"We were more in your face, tough in your own zone, you try not to give anything free, try to get in on the forecheck,'' Ryan McDonagh said. "It's a different mind-set when you're fighting for your lives and it's a good mind-set to have. You play a lot more aggressive, desperate style. Hopefully, we can carry it into the playoffs.''

Stepan, who blossomed in his third season as Tortorella recognized him as the team's most consistent player, finishing with a team-leading 44 points, and a career-high plus-25, said experience will help in the playoffs.

"Going as far as we did last year, that's going to help some of the young guys,'' he said. "At the same time, it's a brand new year, a different spot, a different team. We've got to continue to work hard.''

Richards, whose timely resurgence came after a year in which he mostly didn't resemble the player he was in his prime, agreed with that assessment after the Rangers blanked a lackluster Devils squad in the season finale.

"Next time we play,'' Richards said, "it's going to be a lot different out there.''

New York Sports