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Gomez is No. 1 center in N.Y; Public enemy No. 1 in Jersey

by Chuck Gormley
Scott Gomez won’t make his long-awaited return to Jersey until Nov. 14 when the Rangers pay their first visit to the Devils’ new Prudential Center in Newark.
New York Rangers coach Tom Renney figures there will be plenty of chances for Scott Gomez to face his former team this season – eight to be exact – so he held the star center out of Friday night’s preseason opener against the Devils at Madison Square Garden.

Gomez, who spent eight years in New Jersey before signing with New York as a free agent on July 1, must now wait until the Rangers’ ninth game of the regular season to face his former team at the Garden on Oct. 25.

Gomez won’t make his long-awaited return to Jersey until Nov. 14 when the Rangers pay their first visit to the Devils’ new Prudential Center in Newark.

“I'm sure every time I touch the puck that place is going to go crazy,” Gomez said of the boos he expects to receive from his old fans. “So, we'll just see what happens.”

Until then, Gomez will spend most of his energies trying to fulfill the high expectations brought on by the Rangers’ summer signings of him and former Sabres co-captain Chris Drury.

Gomez has spent much of training camp trying to find chemistry on a top line with right wing Jaromir Jagr and left wing Martin Straka, while Drury has centered an in-your-face line with Sean Avery and Brendan Shanahan.

The biggest question in New York is whether Gomez can cross the Hudson River with better results than former Devils-turned-Rangers Bobby Holik and Bruce Driver, who sprung leaks in their games somewhere between Hoboken and Manhattan.

Gomez, who won a pair of Stanley Cups with the Devils, said he’s confident he can turn the page on his Devils’ career and start anew in Rangers blue.

“I went from a raised kid in the Devils’ system to Public Enemy No. 1,” Gomez said of his decision to explore free agency. “I had eight wonderful years there and made friends forever. But at the end of the day it was time to go.”

Despite the troubles Holik had in New York, where he tried, unsuccessfully, to be more than a shut-down center, he encouraged Gomez to sign with the Rangers, even if it meant instant disdain from the North Jersey fans who watched him grow from a skinny, unproven prospect to one of the league’s top playmakers.

“Bobby was very instrumental in me coming here,” Gomez said. “I know the Rangers didn't have success when he was here, but at the same time, he says you get over the booing (in New Jersey).”

Of course, there is also the issue of the hard-core fans in New York warming up to a player they despised as a Devil. Gomez says he’s always enjoyed playing in the Big Apple and needs to prove to Rangers fans he is worth every penny of his six-year, $47 million contract.

“I think that's true with anything when you come to New York,” Gomez said. “You've got to earn your wings and earn your stripes. I've always gotten along with the New York fans and that was another reason why I wanted to come here. Because I think they're some of the greatest fans in sports and I understand the mentality, because it's mine, too.”

Chris Drury and Scott Gomez were courted by a number of other teams, but both knew New York was the place they wanted to play.
Gomez said the Flyers, Canadiens and Kings also showed interest in him on July 1, but New York was always at the top of his list. In fact, Gomez moved to Manhattan to soak in the excitement of the big city.

“I've always felt something special about (New York City), even when I was a kid (living in Alaska),” Gomez said “There was only one place for me and that was to move into the city.”

The additions of Gomez and Drury to a team that battled the conference-leading Buffalo Sabres through six hard-fought games in the conference semifinals has nearly everyone in New York thinking of a possible Cup run.

“The players here at this training camp know that we're going to win and want to win,” said Rangers defenseman Paul Mara, who came to New York from Boston in a trade deadline deal last season. “That’s a big difference from a lot of teams throughout the League where you come into training camp with question marks in everyone’s mind about how well you can do in the upcoming year. Here in New York, I think everyone has the attitude that we're going to win the Stanley Cup, and that's what you need to be successful.

“After July 1 there was a buzz all over the country about how well we could do this year, and I think that made everyone work a little harder than we might have in the past.”

Straka agreed, even though the signings of Gomez and Drury might result in him eventually getting bumped him off the top line in favor of Hossa. The veteran Czech winger is pleased to return to a Rangers lineup that is clearly stronger down the middle than when the season ended last spring.

”I really don't care where I play. I just thought those signings were going to help the team,” Straka said. “Obviously, you can’t look at the situation just how it affects you as an individual. You have to look at the whole picture, that’s the main thing. So (those signings) were huge.”

Around the Atlantic -- Last week, the NHL’s board of governors agreed to vote on a proposed schedule change that would reduce the number of games against division rivals from eight to, in all likelihood, seven. Those five additional games would then be played against teams in the opposite conference that are currently left off the schedule.

Under the proposed format, fans in Eastern Conference cities would be guaranteed to see every team in the Western Conference every other season. In other words, if the Penguins play in Colorado this season, the Avalanche would come to Pittsburgh next season.

Under the current format, the five teams in the Atlantic do not face the five teams in the Central at all this season. The offshoot of the scheduling change would be a decrease in divisional play, but some players say the idea of playing one team eight times is less than thrilling.

“I would drop it to six,” Flyers defenseman Derian Hatcher said. “It gets kind of tiring playing Pittsburgh, New Jersey and the Islanders eight times. The novelty wears off.” … Already depleted by the loss of free agents Scott Gomez (to the Rangers) and Brian Rafalski (to the Red Wings), the Devils learned last week they’ll be without right wings Jamie Langenbrunner and Cam Janssen for up to two months. Langenbrunner, who finished third on the Devils in scoring last season with 62 points, had surgery for a sports hernia. Janssen, who led the Devils in penalty minutes with 114, also needs surgery after dislocating his shoulder in a fight with Flyers enforcer Jesse Boulerice.

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