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Panthers-Rangers Preview @NHL

The New York Rangers hope another active offseason will finally produce their first Stanley Cup in 12 seasons.

The Rangers begin that quest Thursday night when they open the 2007-08 season against the Florida Panthers, a team looking to end a six-season playoff drought.

New York, which last won a Stanley Cup in 1994 to end a 54-year championship drought, made a huge splash on the first day of free agency by landing centers Chris Drury and Scott Gomez from Buffalo and New Jersey, respectively. Drury signed a five-year deal for $35.25 million and Gomez inked a seven-year deal for $51.5 million.

The signings were in reaction to the Rangers second-round playoff exit in six games to the Presidents' Trophy-winning Sabres after sweeping Atlanta in the first round. Drury scored a series-changing goal with eight seconds left in regulation of Game 5, which eventually saw New York lose 2-1 in overtime to fall behind 3-2 in the series.

In 2006, Gomez, a two-time Cup winner, had two goals and four assists for the Devils in a first-round playoff sweep of the Rangers.

"I don't bring it up and I don't think any of them want to bring it up," Drury said of last season's playoffs. "As athletes you're kind of just trained to put last year where it should be and move on. I'm sure no one in here day to day is thinking about me as a Sabre anymore or the year before with Scotty as a Devil knocking the Rangers out. They've welcomed me and Scotty with open arms."

Drury, a Connecticut native and Rangers fan growing up, finished last season with career highs of 37 goals and 69 points, including 17 power-play goals and nine game-winners. He won a Stanley Cup in 2001 with Colorado.

Gomez is coming off a difficult season with 13 goals and 60 points after career highs of 33 and 84, respectively, in 2005-06.

"Is it a benefit for us in the playoffs? I think so," Rangers right wing Jaromir Jagr said of his new teammates. "But first of all we've got to get there."

That hasn't been a problem under coach Tom Renney, who has guided New York to the playoffs in each of his three seasons, ending a team-record seven-year postseason drought.

Renney is expected to shuffle his lines trying to match Jagr, the team's leader in goals (30) and points (96) last season, with one of the new centers. The other will play with left wing Brendan Shanahan, who was tied with Martin Straka for second on the club with 29 goals and returns for his 20th NHL season.

New York, which has won its last two season openers, hopes the experimentation can produce some quick results after it sputtered to an 18-17-4 start last season, capped by a seven-game losing streak in December.

The team surged after getting noted agitator Sean Avery from Los Angeles, going 17-5-5 after his arrival.

The Rangers could also use more consistent play at Madison Square Garden. They went 13-14-5 - having won consecutive games just three times - before closing their home schedule with eight wins in nine games.

"The points you get early in the year are real good to you at certain times of the year when you've got those injury things or you're in those dog days of January and February," Renney said. "The bottom line is we need to play every game with a certain amount of desperation."

The Rangers will have Henrik Lundqvist starting in goal again after he followed up his 30-win rookie season with a 37-win campaign last season. He played 70 games and posted a stellar 2.34 goals-against average, good enough to be a Vezina Trophy finalist.

Florida, which has won three straight season openers, is trying to end its postseason absence after adding No. 1 goaltender Tomas Vokoun in a draft-day trade from Nashville.

Vokoun - the Predators' all-time leads with 161 wins and 21 shutouts - had a difficult 2005-06 season, missing 38 games and the playoffs with blood clots and a left thumb injury. He was impressive when he did play, though, going 27-12-4 with a 2.40 GAA and five shutouts.

Panthers captain Olli Jokinen again is expected to lead the offense after career highs of 39 goals and 52 assists for 91 points. The center got only 13 goals and 20 assists on the road. He has one goal and three points in 13 career games at MSG.

Right wing Nathan Horton and center Stephen Weiss also are coming off career seasons. Horton had 31 goals and 62 points, while Weiss netted 20 goals with 48 points.

Despite the personal success, the Panthers finished 35-31-16 and six points out of the last playoff spot.

"I will do whatever it takes for our team to make the playoffs this year," Horton told the Panthers' official Web site. "Whatever it takes."

Florida and New York split four meetings last season, including two at MSG. The Rangers, though, have won five of the last six meetings there.

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