FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

BY: Bruce Berlet

Lights. Camera. Action.

Yes, more than the usual number of faces was on hand for the opening of the New York Rangers’ training camp Friday at the Madison Square Garden training facility in Greenburgh, N.Y.

HBO has begun filming the Rangers for the second season of “24/7: Road to the Winter Classic,” which will keep Blueshirts fans across the country glued to their television sets this winter. The Rangers will play the Philadelphia Flyers in the fifth Winter Classic on Jan. 2 at 1 p.m. at Citizens Bank Park, though official announcement of the game might not be made until the end of the month. It originally was to be played at Lincoln Financial Field on New Year’s Day, which is when the Winter Classic has always been played. But the Philadelphia Eagles are scheduled to play at Lincoln Financial Field on Jan. 1, so the game was moved back a day.

Last year’s HBO show presented an intriguing inside look at the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals and played to mostly rave reviews. But Rangers fans should get memorable footage of their favorites as HBO usually excels in its sports specials, especially all-access looks. Though the show rarely touches on the “seamy side” of teams, it usually expands the audience to non-hockey fans with its intricate details of organizations.

“It takes a couple of days to get used to it,” Rangers left wing Mike Rupp, who went through the first “24/7” with the Penguins, told the New York media. “They’re good guys. My experience is that they don’t have crews who are like, ‘We need our footage’ and will do whatever it takes to get it. They’re easy-going guys who are sensitive to some of the different things we do.

“I know from last year they try and do different things on camera. It’s a long day for them, and it’s a long day for the guys coming to the rink. Other than (the first day), where they tell you to do stuff, it isn’t normal.”

So bright lights have been in the training facility hallways as cameras roll and boom mikes hang over the plexi-glass. Microphones have also been attached to goalie Marty Biron’s shoulder pads, causing some media members to jokingly ask players if they have their makeup ready. And feisty left wing Brandon Prust indoctrinated the crew to the Rangers’ locker room, telling a few to be careful not to step on the logo on the carpet in the center the room and then sharing a laugh.

Seriously, the show should provide plenty of fodder on a multitude of subjects that Rangers fans would certainly be interested in, starting with a look at fiery coach John Tortorella and new captain Ryan Callahan, the former All-Star right wing with the Hartford Wolf Pack. Fans also should like a close-up look at some of Callahan’s young teammates who also played on Asylum Street, standout goalie Henrik Lundqvist, enigmatic right wing Marian Gaborik, new high-priced center Brad Richards, a tour of New York hot spots with Sean Avery and cigar-smoking Hall of Fame president and general manager Glen Sather, who has received his share of criticism in his 10 years on Broadway but has recently earned plaudits for keeping the Rangers’ young core players intact.

Prust agrees on several fronts. When asked who the breakout star of the series will be, Prust said, “We all have our No. 1 pick.” When asked if it would be a certain man with a beard, Prust smiled and said, “He’ll definitely be No. 1. The man with the beard, that will be interesting to see.” As far as the players, Prust said, “I was thinking about (number) 16,” which is worn by Avery.

With a New York audience, the Rangers are almost certain to attract a large, passionate audience, especially with a player such as Avery and his eclectic personality that would help appeal to a larger viewership. It should certainly make for some interesting viewing, starting with the first two days of camp, which center around Tortorella’s (in)famous grueling conditioning tests – three laps going hard repeated six times. Richards, who played for – and won a Stanley Cup with – Tortorella in Tampa Bay, quipped, “I missed it (the tests) so much that I just had to come back for it.”

What Richards and the rest of the Rangers got early was Tortorella being at his playful best. At one point, he skated to the glass where the media hangs out and jokingly told them there were no pucks until Sunday so to come back then. There were no takers, just a few good smiles and chuckles. Oh, that Torts. Look out Leno.

Besides Tortorella’s mini-comedy routine, the most notable item from the first day was Richards and Gaborik being in the same group with Brandon Dubinsky and Wojtek Wolski, the leading contenders for the left-wing spot on the Rangers’ No. 1. But Gaborik was not on the ice for the endurance skating test because he had just returned from Slovakia for the memorial service Thursday for close friend and two-time Olympic teammate Pavol Demitra, who was killed when the charter flight carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team in the Kontinental Hockey League crashed on takeoff on Sept. 7, causing the death of 28 players and 16 other people. Tortorella said he thinks Gaborik will “be OK” after a difficult and tragic summer in which Demitra died and left wing/enforcer Derek Boogaard died of an accidental overdose of alcohol and painkillers. Gaborik and Boogaard were good close from their days with the Minnesota Wild.

“We’ve talked to Gabby right on through,” Tortorella said. “It was a tough summer for hockey in general.”

Former Wolf Pack players Michael Sauer (knee) and center Artem Anisimov and left wing Andrew Yogan, who missed the prospects tournament final with an ailing shoulder, also didn’t skate. Anisimov was taken for an MRI on his knee after something arose during his physical. Tortorella said Sauer has tendinitis in his right knee and acknowledged it is a concern because he missed a day of skating but doesn’t think it’s anything serious. Yogan is expected to be out 7-to-10 days.

The Richards-Gaborik-Dubinsky-Wolski group also included right wings Mats Zuccarello, Dale Weise and Chad Kolarik, who will be vying for one of the few open forward spots with the Rangers after starting last season with the Whale and then spending varying amounts of time on Broadway.

Here’s how the roster was broken down as provided by Andrew Gross on his Ranger Rants blog:

Group 1: Sean Avery, Ruslan Fedotenko, Kris Newbury, Brandon Prust, Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan, Erik Christensen, Mike Rupp, Steve Eminger, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, Tommy Grant, Kale Kerbashian.

Group 2: Brandon Dubinsky, Marian Gaborik, Carl Hagelin, Dylan McIlrath, Artem Anisimov, John Mitchell, Brad Richards, Derek Stepan, Ryan Bourque, Andre Deveaux, Wojtek Wolski, Mats Zuccarello, Tim Erixon, Jordan Hickmott, Chad Kolarik, Dale Weise.

Group 3: Lee Baldwin, Tomas Kundratek, J.T. Miller, Pavel Valentenko, Sam Klassen, Jyri Niemi, Jared Nightingale, Samuel Noreau, Brendan Bell, Stu Bickel, Michael Del Zotto, Michael Sauer, Andreas Thuresson.

Group 4: Peter Ceresnak, Blake Parlett, Christian Thomas, Jason Wilson, Tayler Jordan, Shane McColgan, Michael St. Croix, Collin Bowman, Chris McKelvie, Kelsey Tessier, Scott Tanski, Matt Rust, Andrew Yogan, Marty Biron, Chad Johnson, Henrik Lundqvist, Jason Missiaen, Scott Stajcer, Cameron Talbot.

NHL.COM WRITER ALSO LIKES ERIXON

New defenseman Tim Erixon drew rave reviews from all quarters during the prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich., where most of the Blueshirts top young players were 2-1-1, losing 5-2 in the final to the more experienced Buffalo Sabres.

Erixon, the Calgary Flames’ first-round pick (23rd overall) in 2009 acquired June 1 for two second-rounders and Roman Horak, was paired mostly with captain Dylan McIlrath, the Rangers’ No. 1 pick (10th overall) in 2010. It was a pairing that could be playing Broadway for years since Erixon displayed his well-publicized savvy, high hockey IQ and offensive moves, especially on the power play, while the more defensive-minded McIlrath cleared the slot and stood up for teammates at the slightest opportunity, though sometimes to a fault as he let the opposition get under his skin the last two games.

NHL.com writer Mike G. Morreale selected Erixon as one of the top nine players in the prospects tournament, which a year ago included Carolina Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner, who won the Calder Cup as the NHL’s top rookie, Rangers center Derek Stepan, who scored an opening-night hat trick and had 21 goals and 45 points, and St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who had 11 goals and a team-high 32 assists in 79 games.

Here’s what Morreale had to say about Erixon:

Don’t be surprised if the 6-foot-2, 200-pound defenseman acquired from Calgary earlier this summer works his way into the Rangers lineup at some point this season.

Erixon was not only New York’s best player in Traverse City but arguably the best player in the tournament. He finished with one goal and four points in four games for the Rangers, working in all situations alongside usual partner Dylan McIlrath.

“I’m very impressed,” said Connecticut Whale assistant coach J.J. Daigneault, who handled the defense. “He’s a very good skater and has good mobility, is a good passer and rarely losses a battle on the rush or even down low. He can contain players and has good offensive skills, a good head and good poise. There’s not much negative to say about this guy.”

Perhaps most impressive was the fact Erixon held his own whenever players attempted to engage physically with him. He stood his ground and never retreated when it came to clearing the crease or taking a hit to clear the puck. His poise and endurance were also impressive – he ate up a ton of minutes.

Erixon was 5-19-24 in 48 games for Skelleftea of the Swedish Elite League last season. In 140 games with the team, the son of former Rangers forward Jan Erixon has 14 goals and 44 points.

“I really like the overall package he brings to the table and the skill set,” Daigneault said. “He’s one of our top defensemen, if not the top defenseman, at this tournament. He’s been controlling the power play and playing some penalty kill, as well. I think the future is very bright for him and the organization.”

GERNANDER A STAR OF THE GAME

Jess Rubenstein, the astute junior/college assessor for The Prospect Park, had interesting Rangers stars for the game against Buffalo.

Choosing J.T. Miller, the Rangers’ first-round pick (15th overall) in June who scored his team’s first goal, as the No. 1 star and Ryan Bourque, son of Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque who continued his hustling, grit work, the third star wasn’t surprising. But picking coach Ken Gernander as the No. 2 star was intriguing.

So why was a coach the second star?

Rubenstein’s explanation was “because his first intermission butt-chewing was exactly what was needed and more importantly what the team responded to. Gernander’s performance also was being evaluated since he is charged with developing these very prospects when they are playing in the AHL. More than anything else, we just loved it when he screamed, ‘No More Respect’ at his team. He demanded and got the team to play better in the second period.

“We asked that he toss away the cliché textbook, which is exactly what he did. Gernander mixed in advice with his butt-chewing as he spelled out exactly what they were doing wrong and how to fix that. Anyone can chew someone out, but the trick is how to turn it into a teaching moment as Gernander did. And a second-place finish out of a roster that had 15 first-time players on it does warrant a couple of stick taps. Next year leave the TV cameras out of the locker room and let Gernander do his job, which is to teach these prospects.”

In a later post, Rubenstein wrote:

We start with an apology as until Wednesday evening we had no faith in Ken Gernander as a teacher. In the AHL, a coach has to not only win but he has to develop players for the next level.

We thought the TV cameras in the locker room were affecting Gernander and got to admit that his “No More Respect” comment is going to stick with us for a very long time. Gernander was an infantry drill instructor, sticking his foot up their rear and at the same time teaching his troops how they can win.

Had Gernander somehow coached that team to a win over the Sabres would have been a masterpiece, but to us the bigger victory was how the team responded. Add “In Ken We Trust” to the other “who we trust” sayings.

The knock on Gernander is that he has yet to get the Whale/Wolf Pack out of the AHL first round. He is going to have an even younger team this season so take your own lessons from Traverse City and get the Whale to the next level.

GRACHEV RETURNS HOME FOR FUNERAL OF FRIENDS

Former Wolf Pack forward Evgeny Grachev flew back to Russia last week for the funeral of many friends and former teammates who played for Lokomotiv. Grachev played one game for Lokomotiv in 2007-08 but spent 28 games with the organization at a lower level the previous season.

Grachev, a third-round pick of the Rangers in 2008, tied for sixth in scoring (38 points) with the Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale last season. But he and Rangers management decided a move to another organization might help his stagnant career, so he was traded to the St. Louis Blues on draft day, June 25, for a third-round pick, which became center Steven Fogarty.

In an interview with the Blues website, Grachev discussed his emotions returning from the funeral.

“I had a lot of friends on that plane,” he said. “I thought I’d go back and support the families and say goodbye to all of those guys that were on the plane. I knew all the trainers and half of the team … three or four were my good friends and one guy (Artem Yarchuk) was my best friend in the hockey world. We played together since we were 13.

“It wasn’t fun. The city was dead for a few days. People wouldn’t smile. There was no music in the restaurants. It changed a lot in the city. They don’t have a team anymore. It’s something you don’t want to experience in your life. I can’t even explain the emotions.”

Lokomotiv won’t play in the KHL this season, working instead to rebuild the organization, starting with junior players not on the ill-fated flight, which crashed shortly after takeoff for the season opener in Minsk, Belarus.

SELANNE COMING BACK ONE MORE TIME

Much to the delight of Anaheim Ducks teammates, coaches and fans, 40something but dynamic Teemu Selanne is returning for another season.

It certainly didn’t look that way two months ago, when Selanne was home in Finland, his aching left knee telling him he could no longer defy Father Time. He was coming off surgery to clean out and repair the knee, and his skates were tucked away and looked like they’d be staying there.

“The whole month of July I was thinking it doesn’t look very good,” Selanne said. “I couldn’t do much after two or three weeks. It’s amazing how fast you lose the muscles around your knee. There were a lot of days where I felt, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work anymore.’ ”

Selanne sustained a setback in his recovery as recently as last month, but he strengthened the area enough to become pain-free and announced Thursday that he will return for a 19th NHL season at age 41. His announcement came two days before the Ducks open training camp and is a major relief to the team, which won’t have to worry about replacing a player who was eighth in the NHL in scoring last season with 31 goals, including a team-high 16 on the power play, and 49 assists in 73 games.

“We are ecstatic to have Teemu back,” Ducks owners Henry and Susan Samueli said in a release issued by the team. “His devotion to our organization, his teammates, and the fans is unparalleled. He is a true Duck at heart and we can’t wait to see him flying down the ice again this season.”

Selanne told reporters in a conference call that his one-year, $4 million contract wasn’t put in place until Wednesday because he tabbed that as the deadline to judge progress on his knee.

“I really feel I can still play at the same level as in the past,” Selanne said. “If you can’t do that, I don’t think I could enjoy the game as much and there would be no way I’d come back. The main factor for me is that I can be healthy. My knee is OK to play at this level and I can use my speed and play at my level. That’s why it took so long to make a decision.

“I was very happy in the last month or so that I was skating with no pain, and that’s a good sign. I’m very optimistic that it (knee) is going to last.”

Let’s hope so because Selanne has been a pleasure to watch – and a credit to himself and his sport off the ice – for nearly two decades as a pro. It started in memorable fashion with 76 goals and 56 assists with the original Winnipeg Jets, coached by former Wolf Pack coach John Paddock, who has said that was a truly spectacular performance to witness. Selanne, who had major knee surgery on his left knee during the 2004-05 lockout, all but conceded this will be the last go-round, so here’s hoping he enjoys success that he deserves.

ISLANDER GETS EARLY BIRTHDAY PRESENT

While Selanne looks forward to likely his final season, John Tavares received a memorable early 21st birthday present from the New York Islanders.

Five days before reaching the alleged age of maturity, Tavares, the first overall pick in 2009, signed a six-year extension for $33 million so he wouldn’t have to worry about restricted free agency next July 1.

Then on Friday, the Islanders signed forward Josh Bailey, their first-round pick (ninth overall) in 2008, to a two-year, $2.1 million contract.

In 161 NHL games, Tavares has 53 goals and 68 assists, including 29 goals and 38 assists last season. The native of Oakville, Ontario, has also represented Canada in the last two World Championships, notching 12 goals and four assists in 14 games.

Tavares frequently talked about enjoying Long Island and wanting to remain with the Islanders after his entry-level contract ran out next summer.

“This is about me being an Islander and wanting to be here for a long time,” said Tavares, who surrendered two years of unrestricted free agency by signing the deal. “We started talking this summer and we were very close and believed something that can get done. Once we were that close, we felt like there was no reason to kind of let it hang over our heads.”

Like the archrival Rangers, the Islanders have retained their young core. Before the end of last season, general manager Garth Snow re-signed Matt Moulson, a two-time 30-goal scorer, to a three-year contract. Soon after the season ended, Kyle Okposo and Calder Trophy finalist Michael Grabner agreed to five-year contracts.

And now the face of the franchise and cornerstone of the Islanders’ rebuilding enters 2011-12 knowing he’s an Islander for at least seven more seasons.

“I hope (people) see that all us young guys really enjoy playing here,” Tavares said. “We’ve got a great organization, a great staff and a great group of guys that have a lot of fun each and every day and are playing for one another and will do anything for one another. We’ve talked about what we can possibly do here. Stuff like this can prove a point to a lot of people and hopefully we can send that message.”

Bailey, who will be 22 on Oct. 2, had 11 goals and 17 assists in 70 games with the Islanders last season, his third in the NHL, and has 34 goals and 88 points in 211 NHL games. He also played 11 games with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, getting six goals and 11 assists.

With training camp opening Friday morning with player physicals, Bailey, a restricted free agent who declined to sign his qualifying offer this summer, faced a tough ultimatum. Per Islanders team policy, any player unsigned by the start of camp will not be signed and the team retains his rights. It’s a strategy the Islanders used with wing Sean Bergenheim in 2006. Bergenheim was unwilling to accept the Islanders’ offer, and when the team refused to budge, he was forced to play the 2006-07 season in Europe (Frolunda FC in Sweden) before rejoining the Islanders the following season.

After the 2009-10 season, Bergenheim left the Islanders and signed a one-year, free-agent deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning on August 17, 2010. In his first appearance in the NHL playoffs, despite having only 14 goals in 80 games in the regular season, Bergenheim had nine goals in 16 games en route to victories over the Pittsburgh Penguins and a sweep of the Washington Capitals before finally falling to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions Boston Bruins in seven games. On July 1, Bergenheim signed a four-year, $11 million with Florida, one of many new additions to the Panthers who will be coached by former Whalers captain Kevin Dineen.

BRUINS COMPLETE SIGNINGS

The Bruins will start defense of their Stanley Cup championship in about three weeks, and they’re going to have all of their weapons at their disposal except for former Wolf Pack center Marc Savard, whose career is likely over because of continued post-concussion syndrome from a blindside hit from Pittsburgh Penguins cheap-shot artist Matt Cooke on March 7, 2010.

Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli assured his team opened camp Friday with all the players he wants when he agreed to terms with restricted free agent Brad Marchand on a two-year, $5 million contract. Marchand will still be a restricted free agent, under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, when the deal expires. But more importantly, the mutual admiration between the Bruins and 23-year-old Marchand resulted in amicable negotiations and finally a deal that prevented a holdout.

“From the get-go, I never was going to miss a day of camp. I never wanted that,” Marchand said during a conference call. “I wanted to be here from the first day. I wanted to show I wanted to be here and go through the whole camp with the guys and be part of the team. I’m very happy it didn’t have to come to that.”

Marchand, who had 21 goals and 20 assists in 77 games in his rookie season with the Bruins, immediately extended an olive branch by showing up for informal practices last week and continuing to skate with his teammates without a contract up until Wednesday morning. He even showed up to the team’s charity golf tournament Monday.

Just the kind of team player every team wants and needs.

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