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Rangers look to toughen up; Brendan Smith might help

Defenseman Brendan Smith could bring some toughness into

Defenseman Brendan Smith could bring some toughness into the Rangers lineup. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Four tip-in goals by the Islanders in their 7-5 win over the Rangers Thursday at Barclays Center led Rangers coach David Quinn to accuse his team of being “soft’’ in front of its own net in the game. So the Rangers worked in practice Friday on covering opposing forwards in the slot, an area Quinn said was “a safe place to be’’ for the Islanders forwards Thursday night.

Quinn said the Rangers coaches had noticed in recent weeks that the team’s play in front of its own net — which had been a strength early in the season — had deteriorated. And the coaches talked to the players about that “about a week ago.’’

Of course, the Rangers have two rugged, crease-clearing defensemen who weren’t in the lineup Thursday. Adam McQuaid remains out with a lower body injury and Brendan Smith sat out his third straight game as a healthy scratch, following a costly turnover in the Rangers’ overtime loss in Detroit on Nov. 9. With the Rangers leading 2-0, Smith got stripped of the puck behind his net and that turned into the Red Wings’ first goal of the game, a  goal that  turned the game around.

Fredrik Claesson came off injured reserve to take Smith’s spot in the lineup the next night against Columbus. And Claesson has played well in the three games he’s been in, including scoring his first goal of the season against the Islanders Thursday.

But when asked Friday if Smith might return soon, Quinn said yes.

“Oh, for sure,’’ the coach said of Smith. “There’s not going to be a long stretch where he’s out.’’

Quinn wouldn’t say whether that return will be Saturday, when the Rangers host Florida, but the timing seems right. If he does return, Smith could be taking the spot of Brady Skjei, who signed a six-year, $31.5 million contract this summer, but who has seen his play slip in recent games. Skjei committed the giveaway that led to the Islanders’ sixth goal Thursday, compounding the error by being unable to tie up Leo Komarov, who banged in a pass from the slot to put the Isles up, 6-3.

“Brady’s just in a little bit of a funk,’’ Quinn said. “And it happens over the course of a season. He’ll get out of it.’’

Asked how he would describe his own play over the last few games, Skjei said he has been playing “inconsistently.’’

“(Thursday) night was not good,’’ he said. “I thought I was playing a decent game the first two periods and I made a mistake in the third. Obviously, I’m not playing the way I want to play, but like I said, I’ve got to keep that consistency going, use my feet more, and try to make more plays.’’

Skjei, who rotated in practice Friday with Claesson and Kevin Shattenkirk (while Smith worked with Skjei’s partner, Tony DeAngelo) was asked if looks over his shoulder when he makes a mistake, wondering if he’ll be the next defenseman sitting out.

“You’re not looking over your shoulder, but if you’re not playing well, there’s guys that are pushing to take your spot,’’ he said. “I feel like I need to pick it up here. There’s definitely some competition right now.’’

New York Sports