The Rangers have been characterized by their collective hard work in the first half.

Should the Rangers play games in the spring and early summer, a group whose effort exceeds their talent level will have earned an Eastern Conference playoff berth.

The Rangers enter the final 30 games of their 2010-11 season with 61 points, sixth most in the East. Seventh-seeded Montreal trails by two points. Eighth-seeded Atlanta is four behind the Rangers, while ninth-seed Carolina has 56 points.

Montreal’s 88 points last year were the fewest for an Eastern Conference playoff qualifier in the five seasons post-lockout. The median average for an Eastern Conference eighth seed has been 91.8 points in the seasons following the work stoppage.

The sprint of 30 games in 68 games begins tonight against the Pittsburgh Penguins. And, yeah, the Rangers know the importance of what lay ahead of them.

“It’s going to be an important stretch coming up,” Marian Gaborik said. “The standings are very tight. February, March and April are going to be very tough, so we just have to get ready.”

Pittsburgh may not have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the lineup. Crosby has not played since an 8-1 win over Tampa Bay due to concussion symptoms. Malkin missed the All-Star Game with an euphemistic lower body injury and sinus infection. Don’t expect the Rangers to feel any sympathy for their Atlantic Division rivals. The Rangers have lost 185 total man-games this season due to a plethora of injuries.

John Tortorella had six AHL call-ups (Michael Del Zotto, Chad Kolarik, Mats Zuccarello, Kris Newbury, Ryan McDonagh and Evgeny Grachev) dress in the 4-3 loss to Florida last Tuesday, while Brodie Dupont was a scratch. The coach announced before the game that he believed Ryan Callahan would be the first of the regulars to return from injury and hinted that Brandon Dubinsky could be back sooner than expected. Tortorella and his players have commended the job the call-ups have done. That does not mean they are not looking forward to getting healthy NHLers back.

“It’s going to be a good feeling to see a lot of guys back when we start again. There are some key guys out,” added All-Star Henrik Lundqvist said Thursday night. “It’s always a different feeling when you’re missing that many guys, but at the same time we have some guys coming up who have been doing a great job for us.”

Leading that group is Zuccarello. The Norwegian has recorded three goals, 11 points and is plus-3 in 17 games. Zuccarello is 4-for-4 in the shootout and his skill in the one-on-one has won the Rangers three games.

“The thing I love about him is that he thinks he belongs here. He knows he’s a good player. That’s a pretty refreshing attitude to see in a guy coming from another country. It’s refreshing to see,” Tortorella praised after the loss. He noted that Zuccarello was not going to be shipped to AHL Connecicut, while Del Zotto, Kolarik, Dupont, Newbury and Grachev were sent to for weekend Whale games against Manchester and Portland. “There are so many different things we have to go through as far as injuries that I don’t want to get too far ahead. He’s not going down with those other guys to play. He’s played a lot of hockey for us. Right now, he’s earned a break here. We’ll make our decisions as we see who’s healthy when we get back at the end of the month.”

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