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Rangers battle mediocrity, seek spark down the stretch as playoff race tightens in the East

New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist watches the puck in the second period of an NHL hockey game with the Philadelphia Flyers, Tuesday, March 26, 2013, in Philadelphia. The Rangers won 5-2. (AP Photo/Tom Mihalek)

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New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist watches the puck in the second period of an NHL hockey game with the Philadelphia Flyers, Tuesday, March 26, 2013, in Philadelphia. The Rangers won 5-2. (AP Photo/Tom Mihalek)

PHILADELPHIA - About 14 months ago, New York Rangers owner James Dolan made a rare stop at a postgame press conference and proclaimed his team fit for a championship.

"I think we're pretty close to getting that back," Dolan said of the Stanley Cup.

Get it back? Even with some big pieces, the Rangers would be happy this season just to get back to the playoffs. The Rangers are closer to missing the post-season than being anywhere near contention for a top spot in the Eastern Conference. Hanging on to eighth place by two points over the New York Islanders, the Rangers start the final month of a shortened regular season desperately trying not to fall from top seed to missing out in one year.

"I just think we have good people and sooner or later they're going to get out of it," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "It's kind of in a little bit of a sprint here because we don't have a full season, we just have this month here. I hope it happens quickly."

The Rangers hope Tuesday's dominant 5-2 win over a Philadelphia team they have just owned the last two years helps build some steam for a playoff push. But it won't be easy. They have road games at playoff-bound Ottawa and Montreal and then another three games before an April 6 date at Carolina, the only team in a six-game stretch not currently slotted into a playoff spot.

The Rangers were expected to be the class of the East after a season in which they made the conference finals and were the No. 1 seed in the conference. Little depth, even less chemistry, overhyped forwards, and injuries, notably to defenceman Marc Staal, have left the Rangers (16-3-3; 35 points) foundering in eighth.

But there's plenty of time. After all, they just need to make the tournament at this point. What happens beyond that juncture—keep in mind the Los Angeles Kings won the Cup as a No. 8 seed just 10 months ago—is anyone's guess.

Sure, the Flyers are worse than the Rangers. But a thorough, road win in a tough building could help the Rangers roll toward the post-season.

"We want to be in a better spot and we're not," Henrik Lundqvist, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL's top goalie last season, said. "We have to battle right now for each point."

The Rangers are getting the production they hoped from Rick Nash (12 goals, 28 points) after a big trade with Columbus. Nash was thrown into the forward mix that also included Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards, making it hard not to view the Rangers as being as serious a Stanley Cup threat in the preseason.

Gaborik has nine goals and 19 points, though Richards has only five goals. Richards, considered the biggest prize in the 2011 free-agent market, has been a big disappointment. Along the way, Derek Stepan has emerged as the top line centre. Richards scored a rare goal Tuesday night to help the Rangers beat the Flyers for the 11th time in their last 12 meetings.

Because Richards has been so ineffective, Tortorella has mixed up his lines and relied on the combination of Nash, Stepan and Carl Hagelin to spark the Rangers. It's getting there.

"Derek is playing with a lot of confidence right now," Richards said. "If coaches knew what's going to work every time, then every team would have perfect line combinations. That's not the way hockey is and it's a constant battle in the NHL, trying to find combinations and chemistry."

Finding the right combinations has been a season-long process for the Rangers. All that high-priced production on paper has produced a meagre 2.26 goals per game, last in the East. For his inefficiency, Gaborik was demoted to the third line.

The punchless offence is why New Jersey dumped them in the conference finals last season in six games.

They're still counting on Lundqvist to bail them out game after game. He has been steady, not quite as game-saving as last season, but has yet to post a shutout.

"You can play well as a group, but you really gain confidence by scoring goals," he said. "I think guys start to feel good about their game and know what's working."

Lundqvist was stellar last season in going 39-18-5 with a minuscule 1.97 goals-against average in 62 regular-season games. He then went 10-10 with a 1.82 in three playoff series. New York went 51-24-7 last season, finishing just two points shy of Vancouver, which held the league's best record.

With the talent they have, the Rangers should play just well enough to make the playoffs. But it's tough to see how they'll create enough offence over the long post-season haul for a playoff berth to matter, especially if they draw an extremely skilled team like Pittsburgh, or an extremely deep team like Boston, in the first round.

"We've got to continue to win games," Stepan said.

Easier said than done.

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