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Western trip poses big challenge for Rangers

The New York Rangers' Rick Nash (61) and

The New York Rangers' Rick Nash (61) and Derick Brassard (16) battle the Carolina Hurricanes' Justin Faulk (27) for the puck during the second period of an NHL game in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014. Photo Credit: AP / Karl B DeBlaker

Rick Nash won't ever forget Los Angeles, where the Rangers' Stanley Cup dream evaporated last June.

"I think it'll always be in the back of the memory, for sure," Nash said Sunday. "I think for the rest of your life when you say 'L.A.,' that memory will come up. But in saying that, it's a new season. It doesn't really matter what happened last year."

Before the Rangers boarded a charter to fly west for a three-game trip that includes the first meeting with the Cup champion Kings, who eliminated the Rangers in five games, Nash took a moment to reflect back on the series.

"There's no one thing that jumps out. Seems like each game, at least three of them, could've went either way," he said. "A bounce here, puck goes in there."

The overall feeling now, he said, is similar to "when we went back to Montreal this year, Pittsburgh, Philly [where the Rangers played in their postseason run]. Those memories always resurface."

On ice, however, the Western Conference poses another challenge, Nash said. He agreed that the trip will be a measuring stick, defining where the Rangers currently are in the NHL's big picture.

"I think that's a good way to look at it," he said. "It's going to test our road game against good competition."

Nash said he noticed the disparities in the conferences during the last road trip, when the Rangers faced the Stars and Panthers.

The West teams, he said, "are big, they get a forecheck, there's not much space. I think you get a bit more space when you play games in the East . . . A good example is playing Dallas and then coming into Florida. I felt like it was a different style."

Without mentioning Ryan Getzlaf, Joe Thornton, Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar, coach Alain Vigneault did say Sunday that one significant difference is that centers in the West are a little bigger.

But Vigneault noted that in the second half of last season and so far this season, East teams seem to have improved their records against West teams compared with the first half of last season, when the West "was destroying" the East.

Hayes to stay at center

Kevin Hayes to the wing? Vigneault quashed that possibility despite Hayes' poor stats on faceoffs (34 percent). Vigneault almost exclusively uses Dominic Moore on defensive-zone draws.

"Kevin's in the process of being a good centerman, and part of that process is his faceoff percentage," Vigneault said. "It's his first year in the NHL; I would not use the word struggling, but his stats would say that. I would say a lot of that has to do with experience, whereas with Dom, he's taken so many more faceoffs, he's more comfortable, and so obviously, I'm going to use him more in our zone.

"I'm confident at some point -- it might take a month, it might take two months, it might take a year, it might take two years -- but I know Kevin's going to improve taking faceoffs and us starting with the puck."

 

Tough call on Duclair

A decision on whether rookie Anthony Duclair, on loan to Team Canada, will join the Rangers in California or be assigned to his junior team, the Quebec Remparts, is expected soon after the World Junior Tournament ends Monday.

"We have cap space," Vigneault said. "Jeff [Gorton, the Rangers' assistant general manager] is on his way to Toronto and we're hooking up with Glen [Sather, the Rangers' president and GM] in California and we'll make that decision very shortly.

"There's a lot of components that go into making that decision, and one major component is that if we send him down, we can't call him up, and that team is Memorial Cup-bound because they're hosting, so you're looking at mid-May [before he could return to the Rangers]."

The Rangers have about $1 million in cap space to absorb Duclair's salary as a 14th forward, but it would leave little wiggle room. There also is the question of how much playing time Duclair, who was 1-6-7 in 18 of the Rangers' first 26 games, would receive with the Rangers versus on the top line in Quebec.

Talbot on deck

Backup goaltender Cam Talbot will play in one of the three games on the trip, Vigneault said, but he wouldn't disclose his plan until Tuesday's practice in Anaheim. The Rangers play back-to-back against the Ducks and Kings on Wednesday and Thursday, then have a day off before facing the Sharks on Saturday.

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