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Higgins excited about joining Rangers

by John McGourty
Lifelong Montreal Canadiens fan Chris Higgins is "as excited as I've heard anyone about getting traded here," New York Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather said about the Long Island-born left winger he acquired Tuesday in a blockbuster trade with Montreal for center Scott Gomez.

"I was absolutely thrilled," Higgins said. "If there was one place I would play besides Montreal, it would be with the Rangers, in front of my family and friends. Most of my family lives in the city so it's a dream come true for me as well."

The Rangers traded center Gomez, center Tom Pyatt (a fourth-round pick in 2005) and unsigned defenseman Michael Busto to Montreal for Higgins, the Canadiens' first-round pick, No. 14, in the 2002 Entry Draft. The Rangers also received University of Wisconsin tri-captain Ryan McDonagh, the Canadiens' first-round pick, No. 12, in the 2007 Entry Draft, and Pavel Valentenko, whom the Canadiens took in the fifth round, No. 139, in the 2006 Entry Draft. The Canadiens also traded the rights to free-agent defenseman Doug Janik. Those rights expired at noon Wednesday and Sather said Janik is a free agent.

Higgins, 26, is a native of Smithtown, N.Y. who attended Avon Old Farms prep in Connecticut and then spent two years at Yale University. He played two years with the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs before joining the Canadiens full-time in 2005-06, scoring 23 goals and 15 assists as a rookie. He missed 18 games early in the 2006-07 season with a groin injury and posted 22 goals and 16 assists in 61 games.

Higgins played all 82 games in 2007-08 and had his best season, scoring 27 goals and adding 25 assists, with 12 power-play goals and five game-winners. He was even on the plus-minus scale. Higgins had groin problems at the start of last season and then injured his hand and shoulder in December. He slumped to 12 goals and 11 assists in 57 games and was minus-1. He had two power-play goals, two shorthanded goals and one game-winner.

"I want to stay healthy, that's the first thing that comes to mind," Higgins said. "I had a couple of injuries last year that were bumps in the road for my season. Just when I got healthy again, after being hurt in the preseason, I hurt my shoulder. I felt like I kept battling to get back to where I think I can be as a player. I think if I stay healthy, it will be a much better year for me.

"When you get traded, you want to make a strong first impression and that's what I plan on doing," Higgins said. "It was an odd year for us, the Canadiens, last year. A lot of things went wrong and it seemed like a very long year."

"He's been a goal scorer," Sather said. "Last year, he was hurt three times so he didn't have the year that he expected. He's a guy who has the ability to score some goals. We think he's a terrific player and we're very happy to get him.

"He's also from the New York area and he is excited about coming home. We think he has potential. He's young, he's only 26-years-old. He's a former first-round pick by Montreal. We think he's a good player. That's why we made the deal, not to say anything about the other two guys who are also very good players."

Higgins said he is well aware of the Rangers' fans passion but he said it won't be any worse than playing in Montreal.

"I suppose it won't be any more pressure than I had playing in Montreal," Higgins said. "I think everybody is well aware of the pressure that comes with playing up there. I grew up here. I know what the Rangers' fans are all about. I know they are very hard on their players. I suspect it's no different than the last four years I had in Montreal. It should be the same expectations, the same pressure to perform.

"I'm used to it at least. There, the scrutiny is unparalleled. I've never played for another organization but from what I've been told, there's nothing even close to the pressure you face in Montreal. I guess second would probably be the Garden faithful. I'm just looking forward to the challenge. It should be a very interesting year and I just want to get off on the right foot."

Higgins said that even though the Canadiens had a dispiriting season, he was surprised to find himself traded for the first time in his career.

"I was pretty surprised," he started, then re-considered. "I was definitely very surprised. I didn't expect to be traded. I've heard my name thrown around ever since I played in Montreal but you never know. You never expect it to actually happen. You think it's somebody in the Montreal media making it up."

Higgins was a contrarian as a kid, one of those guys who roots for a team outside his market, which for him would have been the New York Islanders.

"I'm not going to lie, I was always a Canadiens fan growing up, even though I'm from New York," Higgins said. "That shouldn't disturb too many people because I always wanted to play for the Rangers. It's one of the classiest organizations out there. Growing up, I watched the Rangers more than any other NHL team.

"My first memory of the Rangers was when they won the 1994 Stanley Cup and I was 11. I had to hear from every one of my Rangers friends how much better they were than the Canadiens. That wasn't my best memory.

"I grew up watching Brian Leetch. I was a big fan. He went to the same high school that I did. I was always rooting for him and hoping for the best for him and it's great to see him going into the Hall of Fame."

"I grew up here. I know what the Rangers' fans are all about. I know they are very hard on their players. I suspect it's no different than the last four years I had in Montreal. It should be the same expectations, the same pressure to perform."
-- Chris Higgins

Valentenko was voted the best rookie on the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs in 2007-08 but he bolted the team after four games last year and signed a three-year contract with Moscow Dynamo. He had signed a three-year deal with Montreal in June 2007.

The Canadiens may also have gotten tired of waiting for McDonagh, the 2007 Minnesota "Mr. Hockey" who has been named one of three Badger co-captains entering his junior year. The University of Wisconsin website reported Wednesday that McDonagh has assured coach Mike Eaves "that he intends to return for his junior season."

Gomez, normally thought of as a playmaker, tied Nikolai Zherdev for the Rangers' scoring lead last season with 58 points; Gomez scored 16 goals and 42 assists. He had three power-play goals, one shorthanded goal and seven game-winners while going minus-2. Gomez had 16 goals and 54 assists in 2007-08, with 7 power-play goals and 3 game-winners.

Despite signing marquee centers Gomez and Chris Drury two years ago, the Rangers ranked 29th on the power play this past season. They were 15th the year before, even with Jagr. It's expected the Rangers will play a more aggressive style under coach John Tortorella, who was hired last year in February.

"I think Scott is a very good player," Sather said. "He is a real good guy. He worked hard. He was exceptional with the team and in the dressing room. I have no complaints about him. I think he is a terrific guy and he is going to do well in Montreal."

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