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New York Rangers defender Marc Staal (18) congratulates goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) after defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Rangers won 3-1. Charles LeClaire-USPRESSWIRE

Charles LeClaire/USPRESSWIRE

These are not the New York Rangers you used to know.

Gone are the abysmal free-agent signings. Gone, too, are the years with sky-high payrolls, low effort levels and playoff misses – of which there were an alarming seven in a row prior to the 2004-05 lockout.

And in their place just might be the hardest-working team in hockey.

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The Rangers landed in Toronto on Friday night in first place in the Eastern Conference, set for a date on Hockey Night in Canada with the Maple Leafs while on pace for a franchise-record 116-point season.

They have done it, mainly, with hard work, and they have done it – the last 12 years of highs and lows, anyway – with one man as general manager.

This time, however, Glen Sather's Blueshirts have gone blue collar – and the crowds at Madison Square Garden are loving them for it.

"It doesn't matter your level of skill," said Jim Schoenfeld, the only man in the league holding the dual role of assistant coach and assistant GM, "it's about effort. I know our fans to appreciate it, they recognize it and that's the type of team we're trying to develop here.

"Sometimes our fourth line has a good fore-checking shift, and they've just got people hemmed in [their zone] We're not scoring three goals on that shift; we're just working hard. And they skate off to a great ovation."

That might sound like relatively new territory for New York, where they have in recent history always seemed to chase the next big star, hoping to add flash-and-dash to sell tickets on Broadway.

During the lockout, however, Schoenfeld said Sather wanted to go a different route than they had in the past and put more emphasis on young talent and the farm team, just as he'd done in the 1980s in Edmonton to great success.

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Seven years later, that shift is widely evident throughout the Rangers roster, with players drafted since 2004 like Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Michael Del Zotto and Derek Stepan all in key roles.

"Glen finally convinced everyone that that's the way to go," Schoenfeld said. "He kind of wanted to start from scratch when he first came to New York."

While the Rangers still have two big free-agent signings in Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards near the top of their payroll (with a combined $14.2-million U.S. cap hit), the homegrown depth – and an MVP-calibre netminder in Henrik Lundqvist – has been the real difference.

No one has gaudy offensive totals on this team, and no one gets a night off from notoriously on-edge head coach John Tortorella, whose attention to detail has a tendency to drive players batty by about Year 3.

Ask an opposing coach about they Rangers, and they'll tell you about how they block shots and deliver hits as well as any team in the league, making their identity far more about work ethic than anything else.

"We're not a club that looks around for its stars to bail us out because we don't really have them," Lundqvist told Sports Illustrated recently. "We're confident enough to ask more of ourselves every night."

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Lundqvist is exaggerating a little here, as all three of he, Gaborik and Richards could fit the bill in that department and add some sparkle to the marquee at MSG.

It's only fitting, however, that one of the Rangers who will take part in the all-star game later this month is unheralded defenceman Dan Girardi and not another high-paid hired gun.

Not only is he a homegrown player, but the 27-year-old from Welland, Ont., was never drafted and began his tenure with the Rangers in the ECHL.

Now Girardi leads the entire league in minutes played per game, filling in admirably with defence partner Marc Staal missing most of the season with a concussion.

His game is rather workmanlike, too, making him the perfect player to represent his team's identity at the league's annual showcase.

"He's a tremendous story," Schoenfeld said of Girardi. "He does go I think unappreciated [around the league]because he does so many subtle things well. But there's no one in this area that's surprised he's in the all-star game. We would have been astonished if he'd not been there."

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After 41 games

Stat

NHL Rank*

1

Points

58

2nd

2

Goals for per game

2.83

10th

3

Goals against per game

2.02

T-2nd

4

Goal differential

33

4th

5

Save percentage

0.931

2nd

6

Power play

14.8%

22nd

7

Penalty kill

86.2%

6th

8

Times shorthanded

138

T-5th

9

Record when scoring first

19-1-1

1st

10

Total hits

1,171

2nd

11

Blocked shots

669

5th

*- prior to Friday's games

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