2006-02-03 / Sports

New York Hockey Report: Scoreboard Watching

By Joe McDonald Sports Columnist


The New York Rangers’ Czech Republic line of Petr Prucha, left, who is congratulated after scoring a goal against the New Jersey  Devils by Fedor Tyutin and Jaromir Jagr, right, is part of the team’s resurgence as playoff contenders. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)The New York Rangers’ Czech Republic line of Petr Prucha, left, who is congratulated after scoring a goal against the New Jersey Devils by Fedor Tyutin and Jaromir Jagr, right, is part of the team’s resurgence as playoff contenders. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun) Some players deny it and some do not, but no one can blame the New York Rangers for watching the scoreboard these days.

Especially when they are blowing out the cellar dweller Pittsburgh Penguins, while the division leading Philadelphia Flyers were dropping a 6-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. “I looked up and saw it was 2-0,” Coach Tom Renney admitted noticing during his team’s 7-1 win. “It was only when I came back in and saw they won.”

At the beginning of the season, not many people would believe the Rangers would be in this position at the beginning of February. After 52 games, the Blueshirts have 66 points and are well entrenched for a playoff spot, currently in the fourth position in the Eastern Conference and only four points behind the Flyers as of Wednesday morning.

And even a disappointing loss on Monday to the same Philadelphia team won’t kill that enthusiasm. The five more games against their brethren from Pennsylvania will decide the division including a match tomorrow at the Wachovia Center.

“We want to take [first place],” Michael Nylander declared. “We feel we are within reach and we have to be confident and believe in ourselves while playing good hockey.”

But no matter how any other rivals play, the Rangers need to remember what got them here.

Last year, during the lockout, assistant general manager Don Maloney preached about rebuilding the team from the net out. The Rangers were stockpiling goaltending talent, which they were so high on, the organization made the decision to let Hartford goalie Jason Labarbera walk and he has helped the Los Angeles Kings early in the season.

That loss didn’t matter, because Henrik Lundqvist was more than advertised. The 23 year-old Swede has been the best player between the pipes on Broadway since Mike Richter was in his prime. His play has brought alive the Garden crowd, mainly because of his amazing saves, which translated into 21 wins so far.

A team, though, can’t live on a goalie alone and the Rangers, which rank second in the league in defense has a lot of help. The bottom two lines - filled with rookies and journeymen - have meshed together to form lethal combinations in preventing goals by using their bodies to block shots and finish off plays. “Part of our jobs is to create energy and control play,” Dominic Moore, the center of the fourth line, explained. “We play the same way no matter the situation.”

Another staple has been the defensemen. Even though they may not score as much as they should, the combinations of Darius Kasparaitis and Fedor Tyutin, Tom Poti and Marik Malik and Jason Strudwick and Michael Rozsival have given the Blueshirts solid, but not flashy, blue liners.

That lunch pail crew has allowed the team to lean on Jaromir Jagr for the bulk of the offense. Leading the league in scoring with 33 goals and 43 assists, the Czech star is comfortable with playing with a number of his countrymen on his line. And with rookie Petr Prucha also becoming a legitimate scoring threat – he’s tied for third in rookie goals with Sidney Crosby at 25 – the Rangers can put out two scoring line threats and that is something they were looking for early in the season.

So you can’t blame them. As they play another week before the Olympic break, the Rangers will be keeping on eye on the scoreboard as they continue their march to play hockey well into May for the first time in seven years.

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