A month ago, free agent Vinny Prospal was sitting at home in Prague, wondering if his NHL career was winding down.
Last night, Prospal was the No. 1 center for the Rangers against the Devils, with the distinct possibility that he could claim that role if the Brandon Dubinsky contract stalemate continues.
Dubinsky, 11 years younger than Prospal, continues his holdout, while Prospal, who knows coach John Tortorella better than anyone in camp, started between Sean Avery and Enver Lisin in his Rangers debut and looked sharp.
If nothing else, Prospal's track record - and one-year, $1.1-million contract - gives general manager Glen Sather even more leverage to prod Dubinsky to accept a deal and report before the Rangers' patience runs out.
In the Rangers' 3-2 shootout loss to the Devils, their second straight preseason defeat, Prospal, who has 410 career assists, didn't score. But he won 8 of 13 faceoffs and displayed his passing skills. He set up Lisin twice in the first period, first on a between-the-legs drop pass and later down the middle for a shot that Avery slid past Yann Danis but was called for goaltender interference. He set up Evgeny Grachev with a backhanded pass and almost scored in overtime.
"Prospal played really well tonight, his playmaking ability shows," said Tortorella, who has had his share of run-ins with the 34-year-old. "A lot of people criticize his skating, but he's a deceptive skater, he's a competitor. Vinny has always come in shape. For some reason there's a knock on him, but he's always been one of the top-conditioned players in my camps. And a lot of things have been going on around him in the last little while; he just bought a house in Tampa, now he's finding schools for his kids."
Prospal, whose career has coursed through the Czech National Team to Philadelphia, Anaheim, Florida, Ottawa and Tampa, where the Lightning bought out the last three years of his $14-million contract, said "the relationship with Torts is beyond player and coach.'' Tortorella "puts on his game face and doesn't take it off for nine months."
Prospal's personality off ice is more relaxed. Last night the two were on the same page.
"I'm encouraged," said Prospal, who is 15 pounds lighter than last season and played 19:04 in his Rangers debut. "I feel better than at this time in seven or eight years."
That may not be what Dubinsky or his agent wants to hear.
Notes & quotes: North Bellmore native Matt Gilroy scored in the shootout and at 3:03 of the third when he blew by Mark Fraser at the blue line and went backhand-forehand-backhand for the Rangers' first goal.