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Rangers on a roll as second half of season looms

Rangers' Vinny Prospal and Marian Gaborik celebrate a

Rangers' Vinny Prospal and Marian Gaborik celebrate a goal by Prospal against the Florida Panthers at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 23, 2009. Photo Credit: AP

With only four games remaining before the halfway point of the season, the revitalized Rangers find themselves with an opportunity to start the second half with momentum that hadn't been generated since October.

Having won four straight, the Rangers (18-16-3) host the Islanders on Saturday, then face two teams that are struggling - the Flyers on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden and the Hurricanes twice, on Thursday in Carolina and at the Garden next Saturday, the 41st game of the season.

Earning six of the eight points would put the Rangers on a pace for 90, which likely would have them in the hunt for an Eastern Conference postseason slot for a fifth consecutive season.

"Hopefully, it is starting to turn around for us," said Vinny Prospal, who ended a 14-game goal drought with two against the Panthers. "We've been able to put together the second-longest winning streak since the beginning of the season. It doesn't matter that the Christmas break comes now; we want to prolong this thing."

Still, any playoff scenarios are premature. The impact of the Winter Olympics and the trade deadline are certain to alter the balance in the East, where the eighth-place Rangers are four points away from the fifth-place Bruins but only five points above 14th place.

So first things first. The Rangers' listless loss to the Islanders at the Garden Dec. 16 triggered a players-only meeting that Henrik Lundqvist said ended in agreement that the team needed to be more aggressive and physical. The Rangers beat the Islanders, 5-2, at Nassau Coliseum the next day and then won the next three games.

One of the next orders of business likely will come Sunday, when the holiday transaction freeze ends. Coach John Tortorella has said the front office is considering the addition of a seventh defenseman to provide him the flexibility to scratch or rest a blueliner.

The Rangers have carried six defensemen and summoned a fill-in from the Hartford Wolf Pack only for injuries until earlier this month, when rookie Matt Gilroy was sent down for a tuneup and veteran Wade Redden was scratched for two games.

Eric Christensen, claimed off waivers when centers Brandon Dubinsky and Chris Drury were sidelined with injuries, is the logical candidate to be waived.

The issue of a backup goaltender needs to be addressed. Rookie Chad Johnson could make his NHL debut against Carolina on New Year's Eve, and Steve Valiquette is playing better in Hartford, where he was sent last month. But the front office is assessing potential backups with more NHL experience to spell Lundqvist, who has started 19 of the last 20.

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