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So far, so good as Rangers take a break

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
By Jim Cerny,

While Henrik Lundqvist, Marc Staal, and Brandon Dubinsky have headed off to Montreal to take part in NHL All-Star Weekend, their Rangers teammates and coaches are enjoying a much-deserved five days away from the hockey rink, time that will be well spent recharging both mentally and physically for the final 34 games of the regular season.

The Rangers hit the break with 60 points over 48 contests, good for second place in the tough Atlantic Division and fifth in the tight Eastern Conference. They trail the Devils by only one point for the top spot in the Atlantic, though the Rangers are also only one point ahead of the Flyers. Perhaps the best news regarding where they are in the standings is the fact that the Blueshirts are 10 points clear of the Penguins and Panthers, both of which are tied for ninth place in the East, and on the outside looking into the playoff picture.

The Rangers have had good reason to celebrate so far, since their record is 10 points ahead of last season's pace.
“We like where we are at, obviously, in the standings, and we have a good record,” said Dubinsky, who, along with Staal, will represent the Rangers in the YoungStars Game on Saturday night in Montreal. “We also understand that the important games are right around the corner so that we have to press right into April.”

Compared to the same time a year ago, the Rangers are in a much more secure spot in the standings. Through 48 games of the 2007-08 campaign, the Rangers had 50 points -- 10 fewer than this year’s club -- and were out of a playoff spot, sitting in ninth place in the conference. When the NHL All-Star Break hit three games later, the Blueshirts were up to 54 points, but were still rooted in ninth place.

Of course, the Rangers had an outstanding stretch drive last season, and finished in fifth place with 97 points, reaching the playoffs for the third consecutive year.

The lesson learned from last season, though, was how important a strong start can be. In 2007-08, the Blueshirts struggled over much of the season’s first half, and the energy expended just to reach the postseason likely was an important factor when they were ousted in the second round by the Penguins.

This year, though, the Rangers roared to the best start in franchise history. As a result, they have spent nearly every day, except a scant few, in first place in their division and in one of the top three seedings in the conference.

“Except for about a five-week lull, where we had some pretty mediocre hockey, we have played well,” said Rangers head coach Tom Renney. “I think what we have done of late suggests that we are coming back into what we want to be and how we have to play in order to have success.”

Winners in four of their last five matches, the Rangers have reached this break in the schedule playing solid two-way hockey. Backstopped by the rock-steady Lundqvist, the Blueshirts have surrendered only eight goals in their last five contests, while of the 11 goals they have scored themselves, five have come on the power play and two were shorthanded tallies.

Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky, who will take part in the NHL All-Star Weekend in Montreal, says the Rangers "understand that the important games are right around the corner".
Lundqvist, who will be the Rangers’ lone representative in Sunday’s NHL All-Star Game, has earned that honor with continued excellent play. Lundqvist has started 40 of the Blueshirts’ 48 games so far this season and has posted 24 victories, a 2.53 goals against average, .914 save percentage, and two shutouts. He is third in the league in wins and fourth in games played, though numbers do not do justice to his importance to the team.

“All you have to do is look over your shoulder back at our own goal every night to know why we have had the success we have had,” said Dubinsky. “Hank has just been unbelievable. And with Steve Valiquette, I think we have the best goalie tandem in the entire league.”

While Renney agrees that Lundqvist has been the linchpin to the Rangers’ strong season, so far, the Rangers’ bench boss likes a lot of what he has seen from his club.

“Our penalty killing has been excellent, our scoring has been balanced, and Henrik has been nothing short of great on a nightly basis,” said Renney. “What I like most about our team is that we have a group of guys that really care, they just hate to lose.”

As Renney noted, the Rangers PK unit has been outstanding all year long. Led by forwards Blair Betts, Fredrik Sjostrom, Scott Gomez, and Chris Drury, and with contributions from all six defensemen, the Rangers have the league’s top-rated penalty kill, with an excellent 87.6 percent success rate.

The other half of the club’s specialty teams -- the power play -- has struggled much of the year but has come on over the last week. The Rangers notched two power-play goals in their final game before the break -- a 4-2 victory over the Ducks at MSG on Tuesday -- and are 5-for-17 with the man-advantage over their last four contests. In fact, in four of the Blueshirts’ last five victories, the game-winning goal was scored on the power play.

“We realize that we have to step it up on the power play in order to have success in the playoffs,” noted Drury, the Rangers captain who is tied with forward Markus Naslund for the team lead in goals (15) and power play goals (6). “We believe that we have the guys here that will be able to do that.”

The Rangers have been able to receive contributions from all four lines and all three defense pairings this season on a roster that has remained remarkably healthy over 48 games. The club has lost only 10 man-games due to injury so far this season, an incredibly low total. No regular has missed more than one game because of injury except for Gomez, who missed five with an ankle problem.

“A lot of that is luck,” noted defenseman Wade Redden. “We have been pretty fortunate to be as healthy as we have been all year.”

While veterans like Naslund, Drury, Gomez, and Michal Rozsival take up much of the space at the top of the team’s scoring chart, the younger players have also been able to contribute on a regular basis. In fact, 24 year-old Nikolai Zherdev leads the Rangers in scoring with 39 points, which includes a team-high 27 assists.

Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, who will join teammate Dubinsky in the NHL YoungStars Game for a second straight year on Saturday, has played a big role in the Blueshirts' strong defensive game.
“We know that we have to contribute just as much as the older guys do,” 23 year-old winger Ryan Callahan said on behalf of the team’s younger players. “They’re going to lead the way, but all of us younger guys are going to need to rise to the challenge, as well.”

The younger set has been led by Staal and Dubinsky, who both will be appearing in their second straight YoungStars Game. Staal, in particular, has made great strides this season, emerging as one of the top defensemen on the Rangers in only his second NHL season. Playing a smooth, confident 20-plus minutes per night, Staal leads the team with an impressive plus-seven plus/minus mark.

Plus/minus won’t be on Staal’s mind this weekend, however, as he, Dubinsky, and Lundqvist will enjoy their time in Montreal with the other top players in the game. But soon enough it will be back to work for the Blueshirts -- with practice scheduled for Monday at the MSG Training Center and games on tap next Tuesday against the Hurricanes at The Garden and Wednesday in Pittsburgh against then Penguins.

“I am going to go up there and enjoy the All-Star Game, and a lot of the other guys will go away and do something else other than think about hockey,” explained Lundqvist, the first-time All Star. “When we come back, I’ll be excited for the last push. The games will be more important. I love this time of year.”
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