2006-04-14 / Sports

New York Hockey Report: Rangers Go Down The Stretch....

By Joe McDonald Sports Columnist

By Joe McDonald
Sports Columnist

New York Rangers' Jaromir Jagr, of the Czech Republic, receives a silver stick from former Rangers' Vic Hadfield, left, Adam Graves and Jean Ratelle, right, for becoming the Rangers all-time scoring leader in goals. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)New York Rangers' Jaromir Jagr, of the Czech Republic, receives a silver stick from former Rangers' Vic Hadfield, left, Adam Graves and Jean Ratelle, right, for becoming the Rangers all-time scoring leader in goals. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun) NEW YORK - Now it gets interesting. After being shocked by the New York Islanders on Tuesday, 3-2, the New York Rangers playoff picture is murkier when they woke up on Wednesday morning.

In command with a five-point lead, it now shrunk to three points over the Flyers and the Devils are now only five behind.

Maybe with the two teams breathing down their backs, the Rangers will wake up, since there are times in the past few games the Blueshirts seem to be sleepwalking through games. In the Islander loss, they played hard during the third period and it was too little too late, since their rivals from the east already built a 3-0 lead.

"I don't want to worry," said coach Tom Renney. "Maybe I should. But I don't think so. When we're ready to roll, I've got faith and confidence in this team that they'll answer the bell, certainly with the effort that is required."

That's fine, but the coach then mused, "I have concerns with other parts of our game, more so than the effort."

Mainly Renney needs to get his players back in the ice. On Tuesday, six of his regulars didn't dress with various injuries, including Henrik Lundqvist, who sat out his fifth match with a hip flexor injury.

"Everybody has the same schedule and everybody is tired," said Petr Sykora. "So there are no excuses about being hurt or being tired."

No excuses, but some key players need to get back on the ice before the playoffs start just to get sharp and get back in the game - especially Lundqvist. Kevin Weekes has filled in admirably, but the Swede will be relied upon to help carry the team when the games get tougher and scoring becomes more of a premium.

If they do hold off their division rivals, the Rangers can expect a first round matchup with one of them. The Devils have played the Rangers tough winning the three out of the last four. Though the Blueshirts handled the Flyers this year, the playoffs are a different story and their explosive offense can come alive at anytime.

And if the Blueshirts fall to the fifth spot, they will play Buffalo. They are 2-2 this year against the Sabres, but both wins came on shootouts. And, as an added bonus, the team from Upstate New York has the vengeance factor, because Darius Kasparaitis took out Tim Connolly with a hip check earlier this season.

And with two games left, one at Philly and then back home against the conference leading Ottawa Senators, the schedule maker isn't kind either.

No matter whom they play, the team knows they have to play better. "The way I look at it, home-ice advantage or no home-ice advantage, if we're going to play like that in the playoffs, we're going to lose anyway," said Jaromir Jagr, who required two stitches after the game to mend his split lip from a uncalled high stick by Shawn Bates.

But maybe the Islander loss is just what the team needed.

"Hopefully, it's going to be a wake-up call for us," he said. "Because like I said, even if we have the home-ice advantage, if we play like [we did against the Islanders], we're going home in four days."

It should be an interesting last few games.

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