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Rangers in need of a bailout in 2010

RALEIGH, N.C. - In 2009, the federal government rolled out a clunker program, provided massive bailouts and pushed health-care reform.

Well, the erratic and confounding Rangers closed their home schedule for the calendar year with a 6-0 clunker against the Flyers Wednesday night and are desperately in need of a bailout or prescription for success in 2010.

After a 7-1 start, they have morphed into a fragile house of cards built on an ace (Marian Gaborik), a king (Henrik Lundqvist), a few middling cards and the occasional joker. If you call the Rangers' bluff, chances are they will fold.

At the halfway point of the season, only the mediocrity of the Eastern Conference is keeping the Rangers (who had won only 11 of the last 31 games before last night's match here against the Hurricanes) in line for their fifth straight playoff appearance.

Unless the Rangers, wavering at .500 (with 12 losses in 20 games at Madison Square Garden) and handcuffed by some hefty contracts, can fend off clubs such as Atlanta, Ottawa, Tampa and the Islanders, an early vacation awaits.

Perhaps the Rangers - who are owned by Cablevision, which also owns Newsday - are a rhythm team. Perhaps layoffs - three days without a game before the Philadelphia debacle - break that rhythm. That won't be the case in January, when a 17-game schedule awaits, including the back end of this home-and-home with Carolina Saturday afternoon.

The challenges are daunting. Vinny Prospal, the team's second-leading scorer with 32 points, will miss at least two weeks after arthroscopic surgery on his knee. Chris Drury, Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky have provided some offense recently, but Chris Higgins hasn't scored regularly and Sean Avery hadn't found the net in 16 games before last night.

Rookie Artem Anisimov has hit a plateau. Donald Brashear, 37, is not skating, checking or fighting very well and has another year remaining on his contract. Ales Kotalik, with another two years left on a $9-million pact, has been weak at even strength, snakebit offensively and in the doghouse of coach John Tortorella along with defenseman Wade Redden, whose contract ($23 million from 2010-11 through 2013-14) is perhaps the most unmovable.

Rumors persist that the team is shopping Higgins and Kotalik. The mood in the locker room is unsettled. The coach says he is "stumped" by the Rangers' inability to generate an intense start to games.

The Rangers don't have the depth of the Penguins, the offensive skill of the Flyers or, so far, the consistent work ethic of the Devils and Islanders. Top forward prospect Evgeny Grachev, who Tortorella has speculated will contribute later this season, has struggled in Hartford (two points in the last 13 games). The defensemen who have been shuttled from the minors because of injuries - Bobby Sanguinetti and Ilkka Heikkinen - have not been effective. P.A. Parenteau (five points in the last four games) and rugged Dane Byers could get calls soon.

And although centers such as Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider and Ryan Bourque are impressing for Team USA in the World Junior Championships under way in Canada, they are years away from joining the team.

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