by Chris, the Impaler - 02/27/2006
The 80th Anniversary season of the New York Rangers has the makings of s special one as the Blue Shirts are not only bound for their first playoff berth since 1997 but are within shouting distance of the top record in the entire NHL.
The Rangers, who have been on the outside looking in come playoff time for a franchise record seven consecutive seasons, find themselves atop the Atlantic Division with a 35-15 mark with 8 OTL -- good for 78 points, three better than the second place Flyers.
The 78 points are third best in the Eastern Conference behind the 82 of Carolina and 79 of Ottawa. Only the Red Wings with 83 and Dallas Stars with 79 have better records in the West.
The turnaround is nothing short of remarkable for a franchise that has been the model for what was wrong with the NHL prior to the 2004-05 lockout and a prime example of how not to do business almost since they won their first Stanley Cup in 44 years in 1994.
The Rangers are owned by Cablevision in New York, which also owns Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks; a company that basically has a license to print money. That's great if it is spent wisely, but the Rangers have made it their business to trade for or sign virtually every big name free agent that has hit the market and in spite of boasting the one of the top - if not the top - payroll in the league year after year, the Rangers have been a wreck.
Theo Fleury, Bobby Holik, Pavel Bure and Eric Lindros, to name a few, are among the high salaried players that have failed to get the Rangers to the playoffs, never mind another Stanley Cup.
The key for the Rangers has no doubt been Jaromir Jagr, a high-priced import who finally paid dividends. Perhaps it was the year off that rejuvenated the 34-year-old Czech, whose play this season has been reminiscent of his prime years in Pittsburgh.
Jagir, who leads the NHL in goals with 40 and points with 88, is the frontrunner for league MVP honors and it is worth noting that the last time a Ranger won the Hart Trophy as MVP -- Mark Messier in 1994 -- the team also won the Cup.
Another reason for the turnaround has been the play of rookie goaltender Henrik Lundquist, who entered the season as the backup but now finds himself leading the league in save percentage and his 2.09 goals against average is second best in the league behind Dominik Hasek.
While Lundquist has been more than a pleasant surprise for the Rangers, he can hardly be considered the typical rookie any more as he returns to the Big Apple this week after some spectacular goaltending helped Sweden win the goal medal in Turin, Italy on Saturday.
As long as fatigue doesn't set in, the fact that the 26-year-old responded so well to the pressures of the Olympics has to be encouraging to the Rangers as they enter the homestretch and the grind of the NHL playoffs.
Team President and General Manager Glen Sather deserves some credit for the Rangers new fortunes as well. Perhaps the best thing Sather did was step down as coach and hand the reins to Tom Renney, who has helped the Rangers develop a chemistry that has long been lacking.
When it finally became obvious to Sather two years ago that the Rangers were not going to spend themselves out of their mess, something their co-tenants the Knicks have failed to grasp, he began to trade some of the higher priced, aging and under\-performing stars for draft picks and role players.
Out went fan favorite Brian Leetch and his $6 million salary. Alex Kovalev and Petr Nedved were also traded, as was Anson Carter to Washington for Jagr.
The moves gave Sather some breathing room with the salary cap and allowed him to sign four Czech free agents, Martin Straka, Martin Rucinsky, Michal Rozsival and Marek Malik, who have not only played well in their new surroundings but have made Jagr admittedly more comfortable.
With 24 games remaining in the season the Rangers have an outside shot of eclipsing the franchise best 112 points they tallied during their 1994 Stanley Cup season but appear certain to eclipse 100 points and earn a top seed in the conference playoffs.
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