2006-10-06 / Sports

NHL Preview: Rangers Look To Pain Town Blue

By Joe McDonald Sports Columnist

When Tom Renney addressed his team before the 2005-06 season, he had one goal in mind. It didn't matter to him if the Rangers went to the playoffs, nor what the final win/loss total would be.

The coach only had one message for his team - "Be A Ranger".

Renney wanted to reinstall the pride back in the organization, which was lacking since way back into the late 1990s. He wanted his team to play a disciplined, hardworking type of game that would endear itself to the Garden crowd and hopefully make up for the lack of star power after Jaromir Jagr.

Needless to say, a 100 point season and the team's first playoff appearance since 1997 brought back the faith in Blueshirt Nation.

But now, the tough part begins. After succeeding when no one expected anything, the Rangers will go into this season being picked by some pundits to win the Stanley Cup. Can they win under that pressure? And is it possible to continue their growth with all the changes made in the team.

We will soon find out.

Forwards: The top line of Martin Straka, Michael Nylander and Jagr remains unchanged from last season. Having such good chemistry allowed Jagr to score 54 goals and 123 points, which made him the runner-up for the Hart Trophy, while becoming a leader for this team that will ultimately have him being named the captain when the season starts. But after the top line, the goals declined and with the Rangers top scorer coming back from a dislocated shoulder, something needed to be done.

Enter Brendan Shanahan, who lobbied Garden management for a contract. The 37 year-old scored 40 goals last year for the Detroit Red Wings. He brings a front of the net presence that will help not only at even strength, but also on the powerplay. The left wing will line up with newcomer Matt Cullen, who had a career year with the Carolina Hurricanes [25 goals] and second year player Petr Prucha, a 30 goal scorer and one of the hardest working players on the ice.

On the third line, look for Blair Betts and Jason Ward to return with former Nashville Predator Adam Hall also getting playing time. Hall adds a new dimension to the team - a driving forward - who will crash the net and make life tough on opposing goalies.

After that, the checking line of Ryan Hollweg and Colton Orr will line up with either rookies Jarkko Immonen, Nigel Dawes or returnee Marcel Hossa also getting ice time. Ultimately, defensive forward Jed Ortmeyer will come back and take his spot on this line.

Defense: Last season, Renney's backliners were not flashy, but worked hard and got the best out of the talent they brought every night. Led by Darius Kasparaitis, the defense played smart positional hockey that didn't do too much freelancing. Only late season acquisition Sandis Ozolinsch, who is recovering from knee surgery displayed offensive prowess but his style hurt the team with too many turnovers.

Look for solid seasons again from Marik Malik, Michal Rozsival and Kasparaitis. Second year player Fedor Tyutin should improve, while free agent signees Aaron Ward and Karel Rachunek try to blend their styles into the coach's system. Rookie Thomas Pock will also see some playing time during the year.

Goaltenders: Even with the great impact that Jagr had on the ice, the most important player for the Rangers last season was Henrik Lundqvist. Maybe the best goalie to come out of Sweden since Pelle Lindbergh, the 24 year-old took Broadway by storm and went 30-11 with a 2.18 goals against average. Only a late season hip-flexor injury curtailed his chances in the playoffs, but that and the migraines which accompanied it are now gone and the man they call "The King" looks for a strong sophomore season.

Backing up is 31 year-old Kevin Weekes. Now accepting of his backup role, the veteran netminder provides capable support for Lundqvist when called upon.

Management: Say what you want about general manager Glen Sather. After doing it wrong for six years, he finally got it right. Working under the salary cap, the former czar of the Edmonton Oilers has fiscal responsibility, which allowed many of the younger players to develop.

His scouting staff is responsible for drafting players like Lundqvist and Prucha in the lower rounds and built a strong farm system that will allow the organization flexibility.

As for Renney, his calm demeanor and smart player friendly approach worked on Broadway. He seemed to learn from his experience as head coach of the Vancouver Canucks and made changes. Jagr bought into his system early and that allowed the rest to follow. Along with Lundqvist and Jagr, he was as responsible for the franchises revival.

Prediction: 47-24-11 - 105 points - First in the Atlantic - Second in the East

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