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Red-hot Rangers reach Olympic break in style

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

With 58 games in the books, the New York Rangers' exciting 2005-06 season takes an extended break so that NHL players can participate in the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, from Feb. 15 to 26. Nine Rangers players will appear in the Games, representing five nations before the Blueshirts' season resumes March 2 for a stretch run of 24 games against Eastern Conference opponents.

Appropriately, the Rangers will return to the ice at Philadelphia, where they opened the 2005-06 season by sending a message to the entire league on Oct. 5. That stunning 5-3 win over the Flyers set the tone for an even more incredible 58-game stretch that has seen the Rangers climb to the top of the Atlantic Divison -- three points ahead of Philadelphia.

The first 58 games have featured everything from the Marek Malik between-the-legs circus shot that ended a 15-round shootout victory over Washington on Nov. 26 to the unforgettable Mark Messier Night on Jan. 12. In the process, the Rangers have gone 19-6-5 at Madison Square Garden, already racking up their most home victories since the 2001-02 season. With a 20th win after the Olympic break, the Rangers will reach 20 wins at MSG for the first time since 1996-97, which was the last season the Blueshirts made the playoffs.

A new era truly has dawned for the Rangers in 2005-06, a season of superlatives that no hockey experts saw coming back in September, when the team was picked to finish at or near the bottom of the NHL standings.

Through 58 games the Rangers already have:
  • 35 victories -- the most at this point in the season since 1993-94 (38)
  • 15 losses -- the fewest at this point since 1995-96 (13)
  • 78 points in the standings -- the most at this point since 1995-96 (79)
  • A record 20 games over .500 -- the best at this point since 1995-96 (21)
  • First place in their division -- the first time at this point since 1995-96
  • Third place in the Eastern conference -- the best showing since 1995-96 (first)
  • 189 goals scored -- the most at this point since 1996-97 (198)
  • 142 goals allowed -- the fewest at this point since 1970-71 (137)
The Rangers also have the NHL's leading scorer -- and goals leader -- in Jaromir Jagr, and they have the NHL's save percentage leader in Henrik Lundqvist. Not since the days of Jean Ratelle and Ed Giacomin in the early 1970s have the Rangers had such a dominant 1-2 punch in both scoring and goaltending.

Jagr's numbers are particularly noteworthy, as he is on pace to break Ratelle's team record for points in one season and become the first Rangers player to lead the league in scoring since Bryan Hextall in 1941-42. With 88 points so far this season, Jagr needs only 21 in 24 games to tie Ratelle's record that has stood for 34 years. And with 40 goals in 58 games, Jagr is also on the same pace set by Adam Graves when Graves established the Rangers record of 52 goals in one season.

Lundqvist, meanwhile, has a .927 save percentage, which puts him in striking range of Mike Dunham's single-season team record of .924. Lundqvist's 2.09 goals-against average is also well ahead of Mike Richter's best season (2.57 in 1993-94) and has him threatening Giacomin's 2.16 mark from 1970-71. He also needs only four more wins to tie the Rangers record for victories in a season by a rookie goaltender -- a record set by the late Sugar Jim Henry in 1941-42.

But before the Rangers can complete their thrilling season, there are gold medals to be won in Italy. Both Jagr and Lundqvist will play for their respective countries in Torino, where they will be joined by Rangers teammates Martin Straka, Martin Rucinsky, Malik, Marcel Hossa, Ville Nieminen, Darius Kasparaitis and Fedor Tyutin. A 10th Rangers player, Petr Prucha, was named to an Olympic roster will miss the Games with a knee injury.

Stick with throughout the Olympics for a Blueshirts perspective on the big international hockey tournament as well as news and information about the Rangers' preparations for the final 24 regular-season games as they take aim at their first playoff berth since 1997.
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