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Three words sum up the season so far

Posted By On January 27, 2011 @ 11:04 am In Hockey,New York Rangers,NHL | 378 Comments

Here’s my column from The Journal News and LoHud.com today:

NEW YORK — It is the quote of the season for the Rangers, because it is everything they are about. [1]

Brandon Prust, the tough-as-shoe-leather winger, had been playing with at least two bad injuries — a bum shoulder and a banged-up hand — two things you don’t want when part of your job description is to fight.

On Saturday, he had blocked a shot off his foot and he toughed it out, limping the rest of the game. He had gone for X-rays, which were negative, and on Monday his foot was still in terrible shape but there were games to be played that night and the next.

Prust was being asked if he might play, and he told reporters:

“It’s just pain.”

It’s Just Pain. That should be the Rangers’ team motto, as “Heave Ho” was in 1993-94, as “Ya Gotta Believe” once was for the Mets, and “We play today, we win today” once was for the Yankees.

These Rangers hit the six-day NHL All-Star break with a 29-20-3 record after a league-high 52 games played (30 remaining). They have won five more games, and recorded six more points, while scoring 13 more goals and allowing 15 fewer after the same number of games last season.

But anybody who’s paying attention knows that the improvement, the marked difference, from last season to this, isn’t nearly that close. Unfortunately, not many are paying attention. New York fans have been distracted by the Jets. Distracted by the Knicks. Well, these Rangers are as good a story as the Jets, minus all the foul-mouthed yapping and bragging and bad behavior.

These Rangers are as good a story as the resurgent Knicks, though they more closely resemble the blue-collar Oakley-Starks-Mason Knicks.

These Rangers have made their mark despite having lost 193 manpower games to injury.

It’s Just Pain.

They’ve plugged hole after hole with minor-leaguer after minor-leaguer and haven’t skipped a beat. Their lineup Tuesday night: average age 24.9, and that includes the 34-year-old captain.

They have had guys such as Prust and Brian Boyle, two grinders, out of nowhere become key producers and leaders.

Their best line this season featured wingers Ryan Callahan, who has missed the last 19 games with a broken hand, and Brandon Dubinsky, who has missed the last five with a stress fracture in his leg. They’ve been without their second-best scorer from a season ago, Vinny Prospal, for this entire season, and survived the loss of their top scorer, Marian Gaborik for 14 games.

But the most compelling thing about this team, perhaps, is that its injuries haven’t been all the residue of bad luck. No, the Rangers are, in a crazy sense, designed to be injured, the way they hit, the way they block shots, the way they play from national anthem to final horn, and sometimes beyond.

Coach John Tortorella kind of said that when asked Tuesday night if the break came at a good time.

“Yeah. We’re beat up,” he said. “The guys that are playing are beat up. They’re beat up for the right reason. They should feel good about themselves. We always talk about that. If you play the right way, and you may not be able to practice the next day, you need some time off, you need to feel good about that because you’re playing the right way.

“I think for the first 52 games here, we’re pretty much there, as far as trying to play the right way. We’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way and had some ups and downs. But I think the mind-set, in how we have to play, has been there pretty consistently.”

That’s why we’ve seen so many players limp off after being hit with pucks — and often seen scenes like when Ruslan Fedotenko already felled by a shot and before he could get to the bench, diving in front of another shot. Why we’ve seen Dubinsky play for two weeks on his broken leg.

Because these Rangers play for each other, play the right way, and play the way few teams play, the way few Rangers teams have ever played. And if you have to go for X-rays, wear an ice bag in bed or miss a few games or weeks?

Well, it’s just pain.


AP photo, above.

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[1] Image: http://dqmt5fo24ucpe.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Prust-vs.-Hurricanes.jpg