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Sports

February 7, 2013

NHL teams find it tough to repeat as elite

They made up three teams of the NHL’s version of the final four last season.

This season, the Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers and Phoenix Coyotes are playing like teams that won’t get to enjoy the final round of the conference playoffs. All three teams have failed to build on their postseason runs of a year ago — and sky-high preseason expectations. The Kings, the defending Stanley Cup champions, and the Rangers wouldn’t even make the playoffs at this rate. And amid complicated ownership issues, the Coyotes are just hanging on.

In this lockout-shortened season, where slow starts can prove costly, all three are in a rush to recapture what made them so special last May.

This trio of underachievers has company when it comes to slow-starting teams, however. The Minnesota Wild, Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings are all among a group lacking that extra spark. And just like that, folks, 20 percent of the season is already in the books.

But it’s the Kings, Coyotes and Rangers that are the most puzzling. They should all have that fire to get back to where they were. After all, the Eastern Conference-champion New Jersey Devils — the other team from the 2012 final four — are fourth in the East and are only point behind Pittsburgh for the top spot in the Atlantic Division entering yesterday’s games.

So it’s not like there has to be a postseason hangover. But whatever the Devils (5-1-3) have right now, the Rangers (4-5), Kings (3-3-2) and Coyotes (4-4-2) simply don’t.

Let’s start in New York.

The Rangers can probably forget about earning the top seed in the conference for the second straight season. New York has little depth and no scoring punch outside of the top line. The Rangers frontloaded that first line — Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and Rick Nash — and that’s worked. They’ve combined for nine goals and 23 points. It’s the rest of the team that’s struggled. All the young players who were supposed to be dynamite on the second line, like Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider, have been anything but. That’s the price the Rangers have paid for dealing several “depth” players like they did to get Nash. The Rangers have scored 20 goals, the lowest total in the East.

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