Thanks to a rookie goalie and a corps of Czech mates, New York has risen from bottom dweller to playoff hopeful
Cured of their profligate ways by the salary cap, the New York Rangers have unexpectedly catapulted from the abyss to third place in the Eastern Conference. Their notoriously difficult franchise player is in his happy place, a late-round Czech rookie is brandishing the NHL's hottest stick, and a stardom-bound Swedish goaltender is endearing himself to the fans in the sold-out Garden, who have seen their team finish next to last in its division for six straight seasons and have not witnessed a home playoff game since 1997. "We've been through so much the past half-dozen years with all the great names, the great players," says assistant general manager Don Maloney. "Maybe too many names, too many egos.... Now we're building from within. You keep hearing you can't rebuild in New York, but if fans see progress, like they have with this team, you certainly can."
The cornerstone is right wing Jaromir Jagr, who at week's end led NHL scorers, with 23 goals and 28 assists. After stealing money from the Capitals for three seasons before his January 2004 trade to the Rangers (Washington is currently subsidizing $3.42 million of his league-high $8.36 million salary), Jagr has been unstoppable this season. He still draws two defenders on the half boards and then smartly moves the puck, slowing the game to suit his whims. Rangers general manager Glen Sather has insulated him with skilled forwards, many of whom share Jagr's native tongue. Instead of indiscriminately writing checks, New York is wisely using Czechs--six of them. Jagr is bubble-wrapped by countrymen such as forwards Martin Straka, Martin Rucinsky and the 240th player drafted in 2002, Petr Prucha, who after Sunday's 2-1 loss to Colorado had six goals in his last 10 games. "That's been by design," says Tom Renney, who heads a coaching staff that is one of the NHL's most technically proficient. "These are players Jags knows and respects. Certainly it's helped the environment."
So has the effort put in by a corps of younger skaters. Their names are not familiar--Blair Betts, Ryan Hollweg, Jed Ortmeyer--but their energy is unflagging. "Our third and fourth lines define who we want to be: an honest, hardworking team," says Renney. "If Jagr thinks, It's not happening tonight, and shuts it down, his effort is going to be conspicuous when compared to other guys'."
Henrik Lundqvist, potentially the best goalie to emerge from Sweden since the late Pelle Lindbergh in the 1980s, usually makes the effort worthwhile. Although he starred for Swedish Elite League champion Frolunda during the lockout, the Rangers suspected he would need time to adapt to the geometry of the smaller North American rink. They were wrong--at week's end the 23-year-old Lundqvist ranked third in the league in save percentage (92.7) and fourth in goals-against average (2.11). "He's a big [6'1", 192-pound] guy who's quick side to side, so I thought he'd adjust," says Montreal goalie José Théodore, who was outplayed by Lundqvist in the Swedish playoffs. "Just not this fast."
The Rangers have done all this on a $35.5 million payroll, down from the $77 million with which they started the 2003-04 season. Forget Macy's and Miracle on 34th Street. This is the Garden and Miracle on 33rd Street.
NHL'S NEW MATH
Big Point Total, No Playoff Spot
Welcome to Math 101, NHL style. Through Sunday the league's 30 teams were a collective 49.5 games over .500--or at least that's what you would have thought by looking at their point totals. By introducing shootouts to break ties (and awarding two points to the winner of a shootout game and one point to the loser) the NHL has inflated the number of standings points leaguewide. This year some team with an eye-catching point total is bound to miss, which could lead to a push for expanded playoffs. A likely proposal is a play-in system in which teams that finish seventh through 10th in their conference play each other in best-of-three series.
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DILIP VISHWANAT/US PRESSWIRE
Jagr and Lundqvist (inset) are giving Rangers fans reason to cheer.
SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above.]