Fredrik Sjostrom

Rangers More Playoff-Ready This Time

by Mark Owens

Since last season, the Rangers have improved more than 25% of their roster:

1. Chris Drury and his incomparable playoff resume is clearly a better option than Matt Cullen, despite Cullen’s excellent performance in the 2006 playoffs with the Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes. Ranger fans await Drury’s first pressure goal.

2. Marc Staal is a huge upgrade over Thomas Pock. Scouts have lauded Staal’s ability to play better in bigger games. No need to elaborate here.

3. Nigel Dawes will most certainly trump Petr Prucha‘s one assist in 10 playoff games last season. Dawes has shown very good passing and shooting skills, and a knack for timely goals.

4. & 5. Brandon Dubinsky and Fredrik Sjostrom make us forget about the likes of Brad Isbister and Marcel Hossa, who both spent time playing with Jagr and Michael Nylander in last season’s playoffs. Dubinsky brings size, skill and youthful exuberance to Jagr’s line. More importantly, Jagr strongly believes in Dubinsky as a player. Sjostrom only scored two goals in 18 games, but made his presence felt in almost every game, mostly by crashing the net, unlike Hossa who skated around the crease area as if nuclear waste was present. (By the way, Hossa had 0 points in 14 games with the Coyotes after the trade.)

6. Scott Gomez is more playoff-tested and ready than the departed Nylander, who had an awesome playoffs last season with six goals and seven assists in 10 games, but has never been to a conference finals, much less won two Stanley Cups like Gomez. Nylander actually has averaged more points per playoff game than Gomez, .77 to .67. Don’t underestimate Gomez’s desire to beat his old team and silence the Devils fans. Did you see his face after Sunday’s shootout goal?

7. Christian Backman appears to be finding his game (one goal, six assists in last eight games) and is probably a better lineup option than Marek Malik. His footspeed alone makes him an upgrade over Malik, but like Malik, Backman is prone to inopportune turnovers in the defensive zone. Luckily for Backman, his turnover to Zach Parise (goal) on March 27th did not lead to a Ranger loss, as he atoned for that miscue by scoring the game’s next goal to even the score. Things could have gotten pretty ugly for Christian if the Rangers lost that game.

On top of the improved roster, the following factors also better equip the Rangers for this year’s playoffs, and will help get them past the Devils.

Special Teams
Despite the brutal 0-8 against the Islanders last Friday, the Rangers power play improved considerably in the season’s last 10 games and finished 22nd in the league, while the Devils were 25th. Jagr’s emergence has been the key. The Devils’ power play is going the wrong way. Both teams have excellent penalty killing, with the Rangers’ unit ranked #6 and the Devils’ #13.

The King
In his three NHL seasons, Lundqvist has dominated Marty Brodeur and the NJ Devils. The lone exception, of course, was the 2006 playoffs. The difference this time: the Rangers played great down the stretch this season, priming for the playoffs, and Hank is not suffering from migraines or Olympic Gold Medal hangover. Regular season success against Marty & the Devils will mean nothing if Brodeur outplays him in this series.

Disappointment the past two seasons should motivate this team. The Rangers have to continue to prove that they will not be outworked our outmuscled by the Devils. Every Ranger should be playing extra hard knowing that this may be their last chance to play with Jagr and Brendan Shanahan. When those guys leave, the Rangers’ Stanley Cup hopes are decreased, simple as that. Jagr in particular is playing like a man possessed, showing 2006 form. Winning a Cup as team captain of the New York Rangers does not make him Mark Messier, but it would create a different legacy for himself in what already is a Hall of Fame career. It would also be an excellent going-away present.

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