Thursday, February 09, 2006

No Blues for the Blueshirts
By Imtiaz Mussa

Yesterday was looking like just another average day until about 5:45. I received a call from a friend of mine telling me that he had an extra ticket to the Rangers-Senators game. I jumped on the chance for two reasons. First, Rangers-Senators has the makings of a playoff preview and second, I had never been to a hockey game in my life. My family doesn’t really know hockey and growing up on Long Island, most of my friends were Islander fans. Just to take it to another level, former Islander coach Lorne Henning’s daughter went to my high school.

I have been to Knick games while the team was contending with Jordan and the Bulls, Shea Stadium when the Yankees and Braves came to visit, St. John’s vs. an undefeated Pitt, and of course soccer games in England where the tension could be cut with a knife. This game ranks right up there. Granted the Rangers thrashed Ottawa 5-1 but still, with it being a first, I will never forget it.

Observations of the Rangers Heading Into the Olympic Break
They are for real and it all starts with Henrik Lundqvist. I know many would say the Rangers’ most important player is Jaromir Jagr but I disagree. The Senators were on the power play a good amount but could not do anything with it. Henrik just made save after save and simply discouraged the Senators. A first line of Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Dany Heatley is about as good as it gets in the league and the Swedish netminder didn’t blink. My one fear about him heading into the break is that he is Sweden’s number one goalie and with the Swedes being considered by many a lock to medal, it means he will be playing a ton of games in a very short period of time. With it starting to look really likely that the Rangers will be playing playoff hockey for the first time since 1997, he will need to be fresh and well rested. That means Kevin Weekes has to start picking it up and if he can’t do the job, the Rangers need to consider adding another goaltender.

I know I said he’s not the Rangers’ most important player but he sure is really good. Jaromir Jagr has been money in the bank this season. The new rules really help him by opening the game up but still being able to utilize his strength. He’s on course to win the Hart Trophy for league MVP. And credit the Rangers for building a team of his fellow countrymen around him. Look at their additions:
Marcel Hossa - Ilava, Czechoslovakia
Martin Rucinsky - Most, Czechoslovakia
Martin Straka - Plzen, Czechoslovakia
Petr Sykora - Plzen, Czechoslovakia
Marek Malik - Ostrava, Czechoslovakia
Michal Rozsival - Vlasim, Czechoslovakia
Since most of these guys have played together on the international level, they have the sort of familiarity that it took some teams a longer time to figure out once the season got started. The one problem with this: the fact that they will be playing in the Olympics and hence, will be playing a ton of games but also risking injury.

One player who I did not mention with the Czechs but is a rising star for them and the Rangers is Petr Prucha. Along with Lundqvist, these two are battling for Rookie of the Year honors. But there are some younger players on this team that have really stepped it up and are not getting the credit they deserve. Jason Ward was the first star last night not because he scored a goal but because of the amazing job he did on the penalty kill. Joining him are Ryan Hollweg, Dominic Moore, and Jed Ortmeyer. None of these guys get the credit they really deserve because they do the dirty work. On the backline, the maturation of Fedor Tyutin has been key. Before the lockout, there were many people who believed that he would follow Brian Leetch’s footsteps and be the next great Rangers defenseman. That was a little too much pressure and he couldn’t perform well in first bunch of games. But now with the defensemen as a unit picking up their play, Tyutin is starting to become that solid defenseman that Ranger fans were hoping for. Maybe not the next Leetch but still a solid contributor.

And finally, give a ton of credit to Tom Renney. There were many people who thought that he was only an interim coach and the Blueshirts were going to get a big name. But Glen Sather stuck with him and he has been doing a tremendous job. There is no such thing as an easy game against the Rangers.

The playoffs are returning to MSG and this team will go far if Lundqvist is hot and the offense is scoring. It’s fun to be a Rangers fan again.


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