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Rangers need new group to step up

New York Rangers right wing Jesper Fast, center,

New York Rangers right wing Jesper Fast, center, celebrates his first NHL goal with center J.T. Miller and defenseman Kevin Klein in the second period of an NHL game at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

In the Rangers' 13 postseason victories last spring, Brad Richards, Brian Boyle and Benoit Pouliot had five winning goals. Dan Carcillo chipped in a couple of goals, although they weren't game-winners. Derek Dorsett brought energy and determined forechecking on the fourth line for 23 games.

Those five forwards, as well as three defensemen, no longer are on the team. For the Rangers to stage another deep run, the players now in their roles have to match or surpass their contributions and intangibles.

The Rangers will practice Tuesday to prepare for Thursday night's playoff opener against the Penguins at the Garden.

Richards, whose lengthy, lucrative contract and age (34) necessitated an offseason buyout, embraced the leadership duties after captain Ryan Callahan was sent to Tampa Bay for Martin St. Louis at the trade deadline. Richards went 5-7-12 in the postseason, averaging 17 minutes a night, and won 140 of 296 faceoffs (47.3 percent).

The 6-6 Boyle, now with Tampa Bay, raised his level, was 3-5-8 and won 50 percent of his 156 draws. Pouliot, who found chemistry with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello, was 5-5-10 and a plus-8. He turned that into a five-year, $20-million contract with Edmonton.

The three players who will fill those main roles are basically untested in the playoffs. The trio's leader is big rookie center Kevin Hayes, 22, who scored 30 points (12-18) in his final 39 games and strengthened the third line.

J.T. Miller, 22, and Jesper Fast, 23, who played a combined seven games last spring, are regular wingers. Miller was 3-5-8 in his last 13 games and the speedy, savvy Fast is playing a more physical game and is a superb penalty-killer.

Tanner Glass, 30, who has been playing more physical hockey of late, flanks Dom Moore and Fast on the fourth line, and James Sheppard, 26, acquired from San Jose, is a spare. On the blue line, Dan Boyle, Keith Yandle and Matt Hunwick replaced Anton Stralman, John Moore and Raphael Diaz.

The major loss is Stralman, a defensive standout who left for a long-term deal with Tampa Bay, where his game has progressed this season. He had only five assists in the postseason last year but tightened the structure in the Rangers' zone. Yandle and Boyle are more skilled offensively (Yandle had 46 assists this season) but aren't at Stralman's level defensively.

Yandle (2-9-11 in 21 games since arriving from Arizona) and the 38-year-old Boyle (9-11-20 in 65 games) have playoff experience and should create enough plays and offensive opportunities to overcome the inevitable lapses.

Hunwick has been more than dependable as a seventh defender (2-9-11, plus-17 in 55 games). Moore had only two assists last year in 21 playoff games. Diaz played in only four.

The Rangers' first-round opponent had to go all out to make the playoffs. Unlike previous seasons, the Penguins needed a final-game win to get in.

"I feel like we've been fighting for a while,'' Sidney Crosby said Monday. "It's definitely a different feeling going in. It feels like in the last week and a half, we've already been in the playoffs.''

Defenseman Marc Staal generally matches up against Crosby, who has a good idea of what to expect.

"I don't want to change too much,'' Crosby said. "I believe in what I do; if there's little adjustments I have to make, I will. You just really have to be ready to compete. He's going to make things tough like other defensemen in the playoffs.''

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