With playoff slots shifting daily, the Flames and the Rangers lurk as teams that no top contender wants to face
ALTHOUGH THEY have given their coaches headaches at times this season—Tom Renney's Rangers have regularly bungled power plays, and Mike Keenan's Flames have endured soft performances from their second liners—New York and Calgary are a pair of underdogs that could cause opponents migraines when the playoffs start next week.
In the Eastern Conference the Rangers were in sixth place at week's end, but they've played well against good teams, going a combined 14-3-1 against New Jersey, Montreal and Pittsburgh. And despite struggling to find the net—the lunch-bucket Rangers' 2.50 goals per game was 25th in the NHL—they have outscored opponents in the third period. They also have a surfeit of players who've had postseason success, including forwards Chris Drury, Scott Gomez and Brendan Shanahan. "Over the next six weeks we have as much room to grow as anybody," Renney says.
The Rangers have been in search of an identity as much as goals during their long slog to the playoffs. Now the team appears to have found a formula that works. Energetic rookie Brandon Dubinsky has emerged as the best center for right wing Jaromir Jagr—a capable if no-longer-dominant scorer—with Martin Straka or Sean Avery on the left side. And Drury has found a home alongside speedy 23-year-old left wing Ryan Callahan.
Combine that with Henrik Lundqvist's goaltending, and the Rangers could win at least one series in a conference in which no contender is without significant flaws.
In the Western Conference the Flames have been battle-tested in the brutal Northwest Division, with the emphasis on battle. (Through Sunday, Calgary's 69 fighting majors was tied for the league lead with the Ducks.)
Calgary has little depth, but no team has a better combination of star goaltender, defenseman and forward. After an egregiously slow start, goalie Miikka Kiprusoff is now playing with the kind of virtuosity he displayed last spring when the Flames extended the vastly superior Red Wings to six games in an opening-round loss. Third-year defenseman Dion Phaneuf, one of the league's most punishing players, has always done all the highlight-reel stuff superbly, and now he's doing all the little things well too—especially in his positioning. Yet if the Flames are to advance in the postseason, it will be on the shoulders of right wing Jarome Iginla, the 49-goal Pied Piper who leads as well as any NHL captain. A day after Atlanta beat Calgary last month, Thrashers center Bobby Holik marveled, "Iginla—there's a hockey player."
Says St. Louis Blues president John Davidson, "There's a lot of [Mark] Messier in Jarome. The third-period goals, the plays he makes. Fights when he has to. And the other thing to take into account, especially in the playoffs, is that he has an emotional attachment to that team and that city. That makes him, and [the Flames], even more dangerous."
If the Flames again meet a power such as Detroit in the first round, Calgary's postseason could be brief. Even if the Flames lose, however, the winners will advance to the second round limping.
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JUSTIN LANE/EPA (GOMEZ)
LEADING THE WAY Gomez (19) has two Cups on his résumé, Iginla a Cup final.
ANDY DEVLIN/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (IGINLA)
[See caption above]