Mike Richter

Game On!

Pre-season is now officially over…the next game is for real, as the New York Rangers travel to Carolina to face the Hurricanes this Friday night.

The Rangers went 4-4-1 in their nine games, but only now is the team starting to show some cohesion.  Eric Lindros initially looked tentative after his long layoff but has shown the Eric of old against the Bruins in returning to his smashing crashing old self.  Meanwhile down in Philly the other half of the deal has looked good on a Flyers team that has a legitimate crack at the cup.

But enough about former Rangers, let’s instead focus on the present.  Perhaps the biggest question mark going into camp was whether Mike Richter could return from a second serious knee injury and whether one of the young goalies could step up to fill the vacant backup role.

It appeared going into last Friday’s waiver draft that GM Glen Sather had his eyes set on Chris Osgood after producing a protected list that included one Bryce Wandler (recently sent down to the Checkers).  The Detroit net-minder would not last beyond the first pick however, and the Rangers will now go with what they have barring any late minute trades.

Fortunately it looks like Richter is healthy enough to open the season.  Showing a little rust, #35 finished the pre-season with an impressive .962 save percentage an a miserly 1.01 goals against average.  In total Richter saw a little under two game’s worth of action and it will probably take a few regular season games before he’s back to his top form.

All three prospective backups started the pre-season well, but a poor game against the Devils sent Holmqvist back to Hartford.  Blackburn has looked very good in some tough games, though his age and an average game against the Bruins may have him going back to juniors.  Skudra, who has a style all his own, may become the de-facto choice after a competent if not spectacular series of games.

On the blueline things have become even more crowded than before.  The late signing of Bryan Berard to a contract will seemingly send Smrek back to the minors.  Ron Low seemed a little unsure of Van Impe’s status after an unimpressive camp so there may still be room for the young Slovak.  Karpa and Ulanov have provided some much needed muscle, though Karpa will need to avoid the bad penalties if he is to avoid sitting on the sideline when Kloucek returns.

Malakhov too successfully navigated the pre-season and has shown some good offensive skills, particularly paired with Leetch on the Power Play.  The experiment of Leetch and Malakhov together as a defensive pair will hopefully die a sudden death.  

Perhaps the best news is the depth the Rangers now have on defense.  Mottau returned to Hartford with Martin Richter who had a good camp and looks like a promising option later this year or next.  Filip Novak admitted he was trying to hard in a disappointing camp, but will be back next year to prove this was just an aberration.  Dale Purinton looks to start the year as the seventh defenseman while veteran Sylvain Lefebvre passed through waivers and may have played his last game as a Ranger. 

Sean Gagnon played one game and looked comfortable and would serve as a veteran call-up should injuries once again hit hard and Leetch…well he was just Leetch.

With the late signing of Petr Nedved, the Rangers were saddled with an interesting problem…what to do at the center position.  Lindros and Messier had locked up spots and Mike York was once again showing why he shouldn’t be overlooked.  Having played left wing with the Penguins, Nedved seemed to be the obvious choice to move…initially on the Lindros line.

It wouldn’t be until the last game of the pre-season however, before the experiment would pay off.  After playing with Lindros and then York, Nedved was finally paired with Mark Messier and Radek Dvorak…a line which produced immediate results in the form of a three goal game.

To make room for the shift it appears as if Manny Malhotra will be shifted back to his natural center position, albeit on the fourth line.  The news is not all bad however, with the added depth the Rangers now have, coach Ron Low is now talking of using four lines. 

Zdeno Ciger, who trailed only Radek Dvorak in pre-season scoring, appears to have locked up the left wing spot on the Lindros-Fleury line, while fellow new comer Andreas Johansson looks to be paired with York and McCarthy.

Barrett Heisten who played the last game of the pre-season with Malhotra and Grosek may just have done enough to win the fourth line spot over McKenna and Scott.

Some of the other youngsters may see NHL time soon too.  Number one prospect Jamie Lundmark found himself paired with rookies most of the pre-season but showed glimpses of his talent.  With Lindros and Messier in front of him, it’s not out of the question that he’ll be called up.  Mikael Samuelsson who impressed Glen Sather prior to camp showed some physical play which could see him brought up after some time with John Paddock and the Wolfpack.

To round out the roster it appears the Rangers will go with McKenna, Purinton and one of Scott or Smrek.  With both players being able to be sent down without clearing waivers it is unclear at this point who will be chosen.

To be sure the Rangers still need to improve their defense and puck control if they hope to challenge for a playoff spot this year, but going into Friday’s game there is some reason for optimism, if for no other reason than we get to see our beloved Blueshirts back on the ice.

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