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Rangers no strangers to Stanley Cup playoffs

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
The 25 players on the Rangers roster are a diverse group with varied hockey backgrounds, but when they take the ice Saturday afternoon in New Jersey, they will all have at least one thing in common.

They will all be playing their first NHL playoff game in a New York Rangers uniform.

As a team, the Blueshirts have not been to the postseason since 1997, and none of the players on the current roster were with the organization back then. But that doesn't mean these 2005-06 Rangers lack playoff experience.

In fact, the current Rangers have a great deal of playoff experience from their years with other NHL teams. More than half (14) have participated in the postseason during their NHL careers, and they have done so with considerable success:
  • 11 have been on teams that won a playoff round
  • 8 have been to the conference finals
  • 7 have been to the Stanley Cup Finals
  • 3 have won the Stanley Cup
Leading the way in the experience category is Jaromir Jagr, who will be appearing in his 13th playoff year, his 27th career playoff series and his 147th game to start Round 1. He has also played a team-high 146 playoff games, and his teams have gone 79-67 in those games.

While the two Stanley Cup championships he won in Pittsburgh are certainly Jagr's greatest postseason accomplishment, his overall track record is also impressive. His teams have reached the second round of the playoffs in eight of 12 years and the conference finals in four of 12 years. He has also been on the winning team in six of eight Game 7 appearances.

Another Rangers player who knows the playoffs well is Sandis Ozolinsh, who is making a Cup quest with his fifth different team. Ozolinsh, a Stanley Cup winner with Colorado in 1996, is right behind Jagr with 134 career playoff games. This is his 10th playoff years and the 24th playoff series. His teams have gone 15-8 in the previous 23 series and 79-55 overall - making his winning percentage even better than Jagr's. He is also a phenomenal 20-6 in playoff overtime games.

"When you're in a playoff series, you're playing against the same team game after game," Ozolinsh said. "Repetition becomes crucial if you're doing the right things. You have to know that if you're doing the right things over and over against the same team, it will work out for you in the long term."

The Ranger with the best playoff winning percentage, and the third-most games played, is Petr Sykora, a member of New Jersey's 2000 championship team. Making his eighth trip to the playoffs, Sykora has the distinction of having played in three Stanley Cup Finals (with the Devils in 2000 and 2001 and Anaheim in 2003). His .619 winning percentage in 84 games reflects his team's ability to consistently go deep in the playoffs. Sykora is 11-5 in his past 16 playoff series. He will be playing his 85th career postseason game against New Jersey on Saturday.

Two other Rangers had also played in at least 80 playoff games prior to this season. Martin Straka, who went to the Cup Finals with Florida in 1996, is going to the playoffs for the ninth time in his career. Darius Kasparaitis, who played on the Islanders team that lost to the eventual Cup champion Rangers in 1994, has 81 games of playoff experience with three different teams. Like Sykora, he has been to the conference finals three times during his career - but he did it with three different teams.

"The playoff mood is always the same," Kasparaitis said of the different places he has played. "Guys are excited to be here and it's a spring feeling outside. It's a playoff atmosphere. Any team you go to, it's always like that."

Kasparaitis' first trip to the playoffs, as a rookie in 1993, gave him a chance to be part of one of the NHL's greatest postseason series upsets. Then only 20 years old, he helped the Islanders stun the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins in seven games. The series ended with a memorable overtime goal - a moment of joy for Kasparaitis, but one of frustration for his current teammate Jagr, who was then in his third year with Pittsburgh.

"We lost to Montreal in the third round that year and I was not satisfied with that," Kasparaitis remembers. "But now I realize how hard it is to even get to the third round of the playoffs, and you have to cherish every single moment when you win. ... I remember that year my friends told me if we won even one game against Pittsburgh they were going to buy me dinner. And that was only one game. But then we went and won the whole series."

Three other current Rangers, Marek Malik, Steve Rucchin and Kevin Weekes, have been to the Stanley Cup Finals during their careers. Malik and Weekes were part of the 2002 Carolina Hurricanes team that lost to Detroit, and Rucchin joined Sykora and Ozolinsh on the 2003 Anaheim team that fell to New Jersey in a thrilling seven-game series.

The playoffs are known as a time of pressure, and the two most pressure-packed moments are the seventh game of a series and any game that goes into overtime. In these areas the Rangers also have considerable experience.

Rucchin, Sykora and Ozolinsh are three of the nine Rangers who have played in a playoff Game 7. The others are Jagr, Kasparaitis, Straka, Michael Nylander, Marek Malik and Martin Rucinsky. Meanwhile, 11 Rangers have appeared in postseason overtime games, and 10 of them have been in games that went at least three overtimes.

Talk about pressure. Since 1936, the three longest overtime games have all involved current Rangers. On May 4, 2000, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh played until 12:01 mark of the fifth overtime. Jagr, Straka and Kasparaitis all played in that game. Three years later, on April 24, 2003, the Mighty Ducks beat Dallas 48 seconds into the fifth overtime. That game included Rucchin, Ozolinsh and Sykora, who scored the winning goal.

"It's definitely very tiring," Ozolinsh said of the multi-overtime experience. "You have to stay in that state of mind where you're not worrying about what happened before. You have to just keep going and thinking that the next shift might be the most important one."

Ozolinsh and Straka also have the distinction of having played in one of the longest Stanley Cup Finals games in NHL history, when they took part in Colorado's series-clinching win over Florida on June 10, 1996. That game ended at 4:31 of the third overtime, and it's the one playoff game Ozolinsh says he will never forget, even trumping the marathon Anaheim-Dallas game in his memory.

Nine current Rangers haven't just played in the playoffs before, they've also played in a series against New Jersey. These playoff-experienced Rangers are in a real position to help their teammates who are new to the playoff atmosphere.

"Experience is big. It really is," said Rucchin. "I think the biggest thing is that you understand the significance of not only every game but every shift. You've experienced it. You've been there and you've seen it. Some guys have been through good things in the playoffs and some guys not so good things, but there's no question you learn from those experiences."

Being new to the playoffs might not be a problem for the team's rookies. Sykora remembers his first playoff game in 1997 and says he wasn't very nervous at all, although he and Kasparaitis agreed that Game 1 does tend to bring out the most anxiety. Kasparaitis said those pregame jitters can show up in the form of early mistakes, but both teams are usually settled down within 30 minutes of action.

"I think everybody's nervous before the first game of the playoffs," Kasparaitis said. "Even if you have 100 games of playoff experience, you're nervous. I think Mark Messier might even be nervous before the first game of the playoffs."

One of the Rangers' playoff newcomers, Dominic Moore, said he was eagerly - but not nervously anticipating his first playoff game.

"This is just an incredibly exciting time," Moore said. "I grew up playing street hockey, and we were always pretending we were in the playoffs, playing for the Stanley Cup. So this really is exciting now."

Another first-time playoff participant this season is Rangers head coach Tom Renney, but his relative inexperience shouldn't be a concern. That's because the playoffs have been fertile ground for first-time coaches.

Anaheim's Mike Babcock, Florida's Doug MacLean, Los Angeles' Barry Melrose, Minnesota's Bob Gainey all took their first playoff teams to the Stanley Cup Finals in the past 15 years, and in 1986, Montreal's Jean Perron led a team to the Stanley Cup despite never having coached in the NHL before that season.

"The first game, first period might be a little bit nerve-racking," said Ozolinsh. "But there is no time to be nervous or save your best for later because you know it's all right there."
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