Derek Stepan has stepped up to the top line this season. Credit: Getty Images Derek Stepan has stepped up to the top line this season.
Credit: Getty Images

It is not a surprise that Rick Nash is top-line wing.

Carl Hagelin and Derek Stepan being his linemates might be, especially when considering the high-end talent that makes up the 2013 edition of the Rangers.

But according to head coach John Tortorella, Hagelin and Stepan have earned the job on merit.

 

“I just don’t think they’re afraid,” Tortorella said during his pregame press conference. “I think sometimes when you’re playing with top players, you end up trying to get them the puck. You just change your game.

“Hags is a very confident guy. Step is a guy who’s been here, understands the personnel. I thought played his best game of the year in [the Rangers’ 4-3 shootout win] Boston [Tuesday night]. He was killing penalties, everything. Strong on the puck. He’s a guy that needs to be able to do that. We have him as a second-line center for this year. Right now he’s on the top line. He can handle that.”

Isles dealing with offensive issues

It would be hard to overstate the importance of last night’s Garden match for the Islanders.

Facing their urban rivals for the second time in a week, the Islanders entered Thursday night’s game with an 0-5-0 record in February. The slide has the Islanders last in the Atlantic Division and they reside in the league’s cellar with Washington.

Among the primary reasons for the Islanders’ nosedive has been an offensive outage. Opponents have outscored the Islanders 20-9 in the five games. Of their nine goals, five have come at even strength. The remaining four were scored on the power play.

Head coach Jack Capuano believes the offensive problems are twofold.

“Five-on-five, there’s a couple things,” Capuano said. “It’s not about structural where we’re at. It’s about defending. Go back. The [Thomas] Vanek goal, the [Eric] Staal goal, I mean we’re right there but we’re not strong enough in front of our net. We have to be stronger. We have to defend with our sticks and making sure we’re boxing guys out.”

The other issue has been a lack of production from the second, third and fourth lines. The top line of Brad Boyes, John Tavares and Matt Moulson have combined for 16 goals and 37 points. The remaining three lines have recorded 15 goals and 36 points.

“The offensive side, we tweaked the lines a little bit like we did early on in the season,” Capuano said. “We’re going to have to get some secondary scoring, especially on the road where their top ‘D’ against our top lines. The other lines have to get going to help us out a little bit.”

Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.

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