Sunday, February 26, 2006

Knicks On Road To Nowhere

If you've been following the Knicks season, you just might've become terminally ill watching them attempt to play basketball. The haunting reality is that these are grown men playing a professional game. They could've fooled me based on the lack of passion that's been on display far too often in a tumultuous season under $10 million coach Larry Brown. Not that it's entirely his fault but is he getting paid by the hour for this garbage they call basketball at the World's Most Famous Arena?

Truth be told, there are many things wrong with this year's Knicks which even the best executives such as Jerry West wouldn't be able to fix. That's what happens when you have clueless Team President Isiah Thomas running the organization into the abyss. In over two years on the job since vowing he'd turn the franchise around, Thomas has sunk it to new levels.

First, Thomas brought in former Lincoln High star Stephon Marbury. Marbury helped get the Knicks into the playoffs two years ago but they didn't get a game off the Nets. Last season, Thomas added Jamal Crawford to the backcourt. With Allan Houston unable to regain form due to chronic knee problems, Thomas banked on the streaky Crawford to mesh with Marbury. At times they played well. But after Marbury proclaimed that he was the best point guard in the NBA before a Nets game in December 2004, the team wilted and missed the playoffs.

So what did Thomas do last summer? Only traded away a number one draft pick which wasn't lottery protected to Chicago in a package for Eddy Curry. Curry has great size and strength on the block. However, he can't put together two good halfs due to lazy work habits and foul trouble. Here is the scary aspect for Knicks fans. With the Knicks currently 29th overall with just a 15-40 record (only Charlotte ranks lower at 15-42), that pick could result in the number one overall selection for an old nemesis. Imagine this. The Bulls select Adam Morrison or Rudy Gay while the Knicks have the inconsistent Curry. Which position would you rather be in?

Getting sick yet? Thomas also swung a deal last draft, moving defensive power forward Kurt Thomas and a pick to Phoenix for Quentin Richardson and a pick which turned into Nate Robinson. While the 2006 Slam Dunk champ has provided solid energy off the bench, Richardson has been a bust thus far missing nine games and seeing his scoring average dip to 8.0 PPG. He's also shooting 35.5 percent from the field including 32.3 percent on trifectas. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

The one positive impact Thomas has had this year is drafting Channing Frye along with acquiring Robinson and taking David Lee. The three rookies play with passion unlike most of the roster. Too bad their coach only gives significant time to Frye.

How confusing is this team that's headed nowhere? A couple of weeks ago, they traded for Jalen Rose. And before last week's trade deadline, Isiah was at it again acquiring Marbury-clone Steve Francis from Orlando for disenchanted second-year small forward Trevor Ariza and Penny Hardaway's expiring contract. Now, correct me if I'm wrong. But the Knicks already had two score-first guards in Marbury and Crawford, plus to a lesser extent Richardson. How can Thomas explain adding even more salary to a cap so maxed out that I'm longing for the days of Rory Sparrow and Louis Orr?

How many of the same players does this mismatched roster need? Is there talent? Sure. To Marbury's credit, he's played hard since the new year and sparked the only sign of life (six wins to start 2006) before injuring his left shoulder. He has missed 11 games already but continues to play through the pain. So, I'll cut him some slack.

Only 22, Curry should give the Knicks a low post presence that can dominate games. Right now, he's not even close. Whether he reaches that potential depends on his desire, which has been questioned. For the Knicks' sake, he better.

I still can't figure out what Francis is doing here. He's more selfish than Marbury and his former team wanted no part of him because they're building for the future with Dwight Howard, Darkko Milicic and Jameer Nelson.

Crawford has been a spark plug off the bench averaging 13.5 PPG. He is the only player who has shown dramatic improvement under Brown, even attempting to play D. Remember that mantra? The Knicks are one of five teams that give up over 100 points (101.3 PPA). I've seen better defense from a Richardson cardboard cutout during a Knick commercial featuring tennis legend John McEnroe urging him to play defense while he hits tennis balls.

Hard to fathom a Brown coached team that doesn't make life difficult for their opponents. Which is what makes Thomas' acquisitions even more baffling. Not one of them is known as a defensive stopper. Something they sure could've used in an embarrassing 110-89 loss at Washington Saturday night.

In the first quarter, Gilbert Arenas torched them for half of his 46. How uncontested was he? Arenas missed only three of his 16 shots, including a season best seven-of-10 from three-point range. He scored 33 of the points in a dominant first half in which the Wizards jumped out to a 71-45 lead. After scoring 13 more in the third quarter, he didn't even play the fourth. Had Washington coach Eddie Jordan let him continue, there's no telling how many he would've finished with.

That sums up how putrid the effort was for New York. It is still amazing that with this team playing this poorly, nobody is taking the fall. Just when does that happen exactly?

Don't tell Knicks brass. But fans are jumping overboard as they crumble.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Hard Hits: North America Comes Up Short Against Europe

What a difference four years makes. Just ask Canada and the United States men's hockey teams. At Salt Lake in 2002, they were superior to their European rivals and gave a great sendoff with Canada prevailing over Team USA 5-2 to win its first Olympic gold medal in 50 years. A signature moment for hockey on the Olympic stage.

For Team USA, their silver medal was its best finish since shocking the world at Lake Placid back in 1980 with the miracle win over Russia in the semifinal and capturing gold over Finland. Ironically, both those teams were coached by the late Herb Brooks. If Brooks were alive today and watched how Team USA and Canada went down, he'd probably have tossed the remote at the TV.

Each team was a cardinal copy of each other at Torino. Both couldn't finish and were undisciplined which cost them in the end. A far cry from how well they played four years ago.

It's amazing to think that a team as top heavy as Canada could actually get shutout three times in their last four games, including a 2-0 quarterfinal loss to Russia Wednesday to be eliminated from medal contention. Joe Sakic, Joe Thornton, Vincent Lecavalier, Todd Bertuzzi and Rick Nash combined for just two goals with the latter trio unable to find the back of the net. Other stars such as Dany Heatley, Jarome Iginla and Simon Gagne struggled to find chemistry.

With the team's forwards having scoring issues, the blueline didn't get involved enough to make a difference. Rob Blake (1 assist) and Wade Redden (1 goal) fizzled while their most active defenseman Chris Pronger found himself in the penalty box too often at crucial times. Bryan McCabe was a disaster. Let's put it this way. None of this collection of All Stars made Canadian fans forget Scott Niedermayer and Ed Jovanovski, both of which pulled out with injuries. Niedermayer's loss in particular hurt. At Salt Lake, there was no better defenseman to transition the puck up the ice and jump into the play.

For some inexplicable reason, Team Canada's D wasn't aggressive enough when they needed to be. Against Russia, they sat back and played passively- almost in fear of the Russian counterattacking style. Though it was understandable why, by backing off and letting the Russians take the play to them the first two periods, it wasn't a wise strategy. Only Martin Brodeur stopping the first 27 shots kept the game scoreless. Canada had their best chances late in the second on a power play but Evgeni Nabokov was equal to the challenge.

Canada finally was beaten when Bertuzzi took a needless interference penalty in the offensive zone shoving Sergei Gonchar down. Russia took advantage when Viktor Kozlov setup Alexander Ovechkin on the doorstep for the winner. From that point, the Canadians finally showed some desperation in their game. But by that point, it was too late. In a fitting conclusion, Alexei Kovalev stole a puck from Pronger and drew a penalty with under a minute left. Kovalev sealed it with a wrist shot past Brodeur from about 10 feet out.

ESPN's Barry Melrose called it "Canada's most embarrassing loss because they didn't compete with the kind of passion they should've." Hard to argue.

For Team USA, the results were no better this time around. Having assembled a team which included veterans such as team Captain Chris Chelios, Derian Hatcher, Mathieu Schneider, Brian Rafalski, Mike Modano, Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk and Bill Guerin, GM Don Waddell was hoping they would lead by example. Newcomers such as Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, Erik Cole, Jason Blake, Mark Parrish, Jordan Leopold, John-Michael Liles and Rick DiPietro were added to inject some youth.

Unfortunately, it didn't go as planned. Playing mostly with Gomez and Gionta, Tkachuk couldn't keep up and didn't even register a point. Meanwhile, Guerin and Modano were invisible for long stretches, combining for three goals. Ironically, Modano made more noise off the ice after they were eliminated complaining about hotel arrangements. Maybe if he had brought that kind of energy to the ice, they wouldn't be coming home early.

With the team unable to finish, they won just once the whole tournament over lowly Kazakhstan and tied Latvia. While it is true that they played well in one goal defeats to Sweden and Russia, they were too inconsistent against Finland in yesterday's quarterfinal.

After Finland jumped out to a 2-0 lead, Team USA cameback to tie it on goals by Mike Knuble and Schneider. But just when they were picking up steam, a lack of discipline was the turning point. Olli Jokinen and Ville Peltonen scored on two separate five-on-three's to restore a two goal lead into the third. Visibly upset, Chelios broke his stick at the end of the second. The 44-year-old four-time Olympian had every right to be frustrated because this was his last chance to compete for gold. He also showed more heart than anyone.

In the third, Team USA played more inspired but a couple of penalties proved costly because it took away some time to comeback. Still, they perserved. When Gionta redirected a Chris Drury feed past Antero Niittymaki, they were within a goal with under five minutes left. But in a period where they outshot the Finns 16-3, they couldn't beat Niittymaki again. Cole came close on a stuff attempt and Schneider almost tied it on a slapshot off a faceoff in the final minute. But close wasn't good enough.

It summed up the whole tournament for the Americans. They didn't embarrass themselves like at Nagano in '98 when a few players trashed their hotel rooms. However, the end result was still disappointing because they were right there.

And so, this year's Olympics comes down to four European countries. Led by four Rangers including Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, Martin Rucinsky and Marek Malik, the Czechs will try to solve Henrik Lundqvist and Sweden. The other semifinal pits Russia against Finland. Russia features Ranger blueliners Darius Kasparaitis and Fedor Tyutin while Finland includes Ville Nieminen. The only Olympic Ranger not to be represented is Marcel Hossa, whose Slovakian team was eliminated by the Czechs 3-1 in an ultracompetitive quarter.

In some strange way, one could say that this tournament has mirrored the Rangers surprising success this season. Either way, Europe has dethroned North America at the Winter Games.

Even though the four remaining countries have caught up, it still will feel odd without Team Canada or Team USA battling for hockey supremacy. It's a long way until Vancouver.

Hitting Back:

-How often will Wayne Gretzky get blamed for Canada's early exit? Speaking of which, I hope Mrs. Gretzky didn't have Canada scoring many goals. Well, at least she's not Rick Tocchet.

-Do you think Cammi Granato smiled a little bit when Team USA lost to Sweden in that shootout last Friday? Just asking.

-Everytime I see a Bode Miller Nike commercial, I'm reminded of those silly ads over a decade ago which featured Dave Johnson and Dan O'Brien. Well, at least Miller qualified unlike O'Brien.

-Does anyone else find it poetic justice that Italy's Enrico Fabris won the 1500 meter speedskating beating out Americans Shani Davis and Chad Kedrick? That's what they get for overhyping that race.

-Speaking of Davis and Kedrick, when are they getting in the ring to settle this thing already? That's just what NBC needs.

-It seems like many of these world class athletes just can't live up to the hype. Maybe if we stopped talking them up, they'd be more levelheaded instead of trying to showboat like Lindsey Jacobellis did to cost her gold in snowboard cross.

-At least the women's bobsleigh team took silver.

-I've found curling to be an interesting sport to watch. How can you not love all that intensity? Who would've ever thought pushing a rock on ice could create all that tension?

-Does anyone else wish NBC commentator Dick Button would just shutup already during women's figure skating?

-Tanith Belbin could've been an angel for all I cared. Just as long as she was on my TV screen in awkward positions with partner Ben Agosto helping them take silver in ice dancing. Hey. At least I'm telling the truth.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Hard Hits: Spirit of Olympic Games On Display

Believe it or not, there have been some tremendous stories taking place at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. If you avoided the classic overreaction to Wayne Gretzky's lack of involvement in his wife Janet Jones' gambling affairs with Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet, you actually might have noticed. Not that many of these obsessed people who are covering the Winter Games of The XX Olympiad seem to care.

However, if you tuned in to watch some of these remarkable athletes compete at the highest level for gold, you would've caught what the Olympics are all about. It's American Joey Cheek dusting the field to win a speedskating gold medal in men's 500 meters and then showing generosity by donating his $25,000 Olympic bonus to help children in the Darfur region of Sudan.

"I have been blessed with competing in the Olympics," Cheek explained to the Associated Press. Using his Mom Chris as a good example she told her two sons, "Not to have good intentions, but to do good things."

Imagine that. An athlete who doesn't bask in the glow of Olympic triumph and thinks of others in need. That's the kind of story which makes these Games so special.

It's 18-year-old halfpipe gold medalist Shaun White being overcome with emotion when he realized his Olympic dream in front of family- showing tears of joy to indicate how much it meant to the world's best snowboarder.

It's China's Zhang Dan showing the heart of a lion by continuing her routine with doubles partner Zhang Hao after straining a left knee ligament after a fall trying to land a historic toss quad. Remarkably, the 20-year-old who was in tears after crashing hard picked herself up and not only finished the long program with Hao but showed enough mettle to land all her jumps including a triple axel and triple sow en route to a miraculous silver medal when it looked over.

Dan's courage embodied what these Winter Games are all about. She easily could've quit due to the pain but instead, persevered.

"I think it's a very valuable experience for competition," Dan pointed out to reporters afterwards. "It's so important for myself because I made a mistake on the first element, but I think I can do all the other elements, so why not keep going?"

"We didn't say any words of giving up. We said we could go on," teammate Hao added.

Ironically enough, the gold medal Russian pair winners Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin overcame their own past, which saw Marinin drop Totmianina on her head giving her a concussion at the '04 Nationals in Pittsburgh. When they finished taking bows, an emotional Marinin bowed to Totmianina, thanking her for sticking with him.

Flawless during both their short and long programs this time around, it made victory that much sweeter. Winning by a large margin of 14.75 points, it was a fitting conclusion to their brilliant careers.

"I have no words to express how great it is to be Olympic champion," Marinin told the AP. "So many people try to be Olympic champion and not so many get to be it."

"It was a long, long way and it wasn't the easiest way. I'm just thrilled with everything," Totmianina added. "We did everything that we can do, we skated clean and got the gold medal."

It's 21-year-old American virtual unknown Ted Ligety coming back to win the gold in combined Alpine skiing. Imagine an unsponsored athlete who wasn't expected to medal let alone win an event having two great slalom runs to take gold after a disappointing downhill. This while the overhyped Bode Miller was disqualified for failing to cross a gate on the slalom. Combined with the outspoken Miller's disappointing fifth place finish in the downhill earlier in the week, can you say flop?

What I admired most was Ligety's honesty afterwards. He mentioned how he couldn't even picture making the Olympics let alone becoming the fourth American to achieve gold in Alpine skiing.

"It's great to be where I am but it's unexpected, that's for sure," he remarked to reporters later. "I have no idea how this will change my life. I'm pretty satisfied with my life so far, so I hope it doesn't change too much."

Sounds pretty sincere.

Sometimes, it's not even about medaling. Just ask women's skiier Lindsey Kildow. She returned to compete in Alpine skiing two days after a horrifying fall which in a bruised thigh, sore back and pelvis. None of that was on her mind Wednesday.

"I wanted to get a medal," she told anyone who would listen after tying for eighth. "But I still have more chances- so don't give up on me yet."

"It's definitely weird going from the hospital bed to the start gate. ... I was a little nervous, I'm not going to lie. I was definitely out of my tuck and just making it past that point and then once I got past that point, I was pretty relieved."

She might not have won gold like Michaela Dorfmeister but Kildow was a winner in my book.

And while I'm on the topic of what has made this week so special, let's not forget the kind of tough decision American figure skater Michelle Kwan made earlier this week. It took a lot for the popular 25-year-old nine-time national champion to realize she couldn't compete at her best due to a groin strain suffered while warming up.

Unable to complete a triple axel, the classy Kwan gave up her quest for Olympic gold in what could've been her third and final opportunity. She took silver in Nagano ('98) and bronze at Salt Lake ('02).

Granted the final spot when she petitioned the USOC due to a groin problem, Kwan showed what being a team player is all about- giving 17-year-old Emily Hughes a deserving chance to compete. Hughes is the younger sister of '02 gold medalist Sarah. She finished third at the '06 U.S. Championships behind Sasha Cohen and Kimmie Meissner.

"Taking myself off the team is the most difficult decision I've ever had to make, but it's the right decision," said Kwan at a conference call this past week. "This injury prevents me from skating my best, and I've said all along that if I couldn't skate to the level that I expected from myself, I'd withdraw from the team.

"The Olympics is the greatest sporting event in the world, and what's most important is that the United States fields the strongest team possible. As much as I'd love to represent the United States in Torino, I would never stand in the way of that."

How can one not appreciate that?

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Rangers Finish Olympic Break In Style, Sweep Leafs For Perfect February

Make it a perfect February for the Rangers. On the heels of an impressive 4-2 home win over Toronto Friday night, they followed it up by holding on for another 4-2 triumph at Air Canada Centre Saturday night- sweeping the home-and-home series en route to matching a season high with their sixth consecutive victory heading into the two-week Olympic Break. During it, they have outscored opponents 25-11.

On fire, one of the NHL's biggest surprises finds itself atop the Atlantic Division, a remarkable 20 games over .500 (35-15-8) with 24 games remaining. That's what's left for a team picked 30th by most experts to silence their critics and qualify for their first postseason since 1997.

Coupled with Ottawa's 3-2 win over the Flyers, the Blueshirts lead the division by three points. When they resume March 2nd, they'll travel to Philadelphia for a pivotal four-point game against their rivals.

The league's leading scorer Jaromir Jagr scored twice and Czechmates Martin Rucinsky and Petr Sykora each had a goal and assist to give the streaking Rangers 78 points- two behind Eastern Conference leader Carolina and one fewer than Ottawa.

While their best players came through, the play of backup goalie Kevin Weekes shouldn't be overlooked. Making his second start in nine days in front of his hometown, Weekes was solid for the second straight game, finishing with 28 saves. Sharp from the outset, he made some timely stops to give his club a boost.

Staked to a one-goal lead on Jagr's 39th, Weekes robbed Alexei Ponikarovsky on the doorstep. With Toronto pressing for the equalizer early in the second period, Mats Sundin setup a wide open Ponikarovsky perfectly but Weekes made a left shoulder save to keep the Rangers ahead. It would prove pivotal when Sykora connected for the fourth game in a row. Taking a feed from Rucinsky, he one-timed the puck upstairs past Ed Belfour for a two-goal lead at 5:51.

Sykora's goal seemed to settle down his teammates after an early Toronto onslaught. Jagr followed it up with his league-leading 40th goal of the season 1:54 later. A couple of shifts earlier, Jagr gave the Rangers a scare when he took a Sundin knee to his right leg and hobbled to the bench. Fortunately, he didn't miss a shift and whistled home his 40th off a broken Michael Nylander pass which deflected off Martin Straka's skate. On the tally, Nylander picked up an assist for his 500th career NHL point.

It was the first time Jagr reached 40 since '00-01 when he scored 52. Ironically, that season was also the last time Jagr won the Art Ross- finishing with 121 points in Mario Lemieux's comeback season. In his career, he's paced the league five times ('95, '98-01).

Rucinsky increased the margin to four on the power play when he one-timed a Steve Rucchin pass through a Marek Malik screen past Belfour with 7:27 left.

However, if the Blueshirts thought the game was over, the Leafs had other ideas. Sparked by a Belfour denial on Straka, Toronto got one back when Bryan McCabe one-timed home his 17th on the power play at 19:27. Tomas Kaberle and Ponikarovsky notched assists. It was the first PPG the Rangers penalty killing unit had allowed in the last 23 chances.

Jason Allison continued the comeback 2:44 into the third when he beat Weekes for the Leafs' second straight PPG. Taking advantage of defenseman Tom Poti without a stick, Allison walked out and fired a wrist shot inside the post with Sundin screening Weekes. Sundin and Kaberle got the assists.

With Toronto suddenly alive, they took the play to New York outshooting them 12-3. Only some big stops from Weekes prevented the Leafs from getting closer. He kicked out a tricky Kyle Wellwood backhand and gloved a McCabe one-timer on Toronto's final man-advantage to seal his second straight win.

Notes: With two more goals, Jagr continued his torrid pace by scoring in his fifth consecutive game (7 goals). It was his second straight multi-goal game. Jagr has 12 points in that same span. His two points Saturday increased his league-leading total to 88 (40-48-88), giving him 1,397 career NHL points- one behind Jari Kurri for second all-time among Europeans. ... Rucinsky extended his point streak to five straight (2-5-7). ... Before the game, Toronto re-signed defenseman Tomas Kaberle to a five-year deal worth an average of $4.25 million-per-year.

Nine Rangers Off To Turin, Italy: Nine Rangers will represent the club at the '06 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy which kicks off later this week:

Czech Republic- Jaromir Jagr, Marek Malik, Martin Straka, Martin Rucinsky
Finland- Ville Nieminen
Russia- Darius Kasparaitis, Fedor Tyutin
Slovakia- Marcel Hossa
Sweden- Henrik Lundqvist

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Rangers Pay Back Senators

The last time the Rangers played the Senators, Ottawa taught them a lesson by routing New York 6-2 on December 26 in Kanata, Ontario. Back then, 14 points separated the teams. But after the Blueshirts turned the tables on Ottawa with an impressive 5-1 win at The Garden Wednesday night, the Atlantic division leaders closed to within three points of the Sens for second in the East.

In the wake of losing second leading goalscorer Petr Prucha to a right knee MCL strain which will sideline the rookie three to four weeks, the Rangers responded by dominating Ottawa to post their first victory against them since November 23, 2003.

In all facets, the Rangers were superior. They were a perfect eight-for-eight killing penalties to shutdown the third ranked power play. It was a combination of clutch netminding from Swedish sensation Henrik Lundqvist and sheer hustle from a PK which featured gritty forwards Jed Ortmeyer, Dominic Moore and Jason Ward.

In a possible Olympic gold medal preview, both Lundqvist and Dominik Hasek were sharp in a fastpaced first period. Thirty seconds in, Hasek denied Michal Rozsival twice to keep it scoreless. A few minutes later, Lundqvist was called on to help thwart a couple of early Ottawa power plays. His best stops came on a Jason Spezza wrist shot and a Zdeno Chara one-timer. Lundqvist stopped all 16 Ottawa shots while Hasek was 10-for-10.

After killing off a second penalty, they nearly went ahead on a Michael Nylander shot but Hasek slid across and Tom Poti overskated the rebound. The Senators were awarded a third consecutive power play on a questionable high sticking call on Poti. But once again, Lundqvist was equal to the task including denials on Wade Redden and Mike Fisher.

The Rangers finally drew two power plays 23 seconds apart in the final minute. Though they didn't score right away, they made Ottawa pay 49 seconds into the second when Jaromir Jagr connected on the five-on-three. Taking a Martin Rucinsky feed, Jagr blasted the puck past Hasek's glove inside the crossbar for his 36th of the season. It tied him for the league lead with Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk.

After killing a Fedor Tyutin penalty, they doubled their lead. Catching a tired Sens power play unit before they could change, Nylander centered a pass which deflected back to Marek Malik, who one-timed the puck off a Senator stick by a surprised Hasek at 6:19.

The Sens came into the contest leading the league in shorthanded goals. In fact, Daniel Alfredsson entered with five- three more than the entire Ranger roster. None of that mattered when New York notched its third thanks to Ward. With Ottawa looking to make it a game, he chipped a puck past Jason Spezza, leading to a three-on-one. Working a give-and-go with Ville Nieminen, Ward's one-timer from the slot beat Hasek to make it 3-0 at 14:06. It was Ward's second shorthanded tally of the season.

Chris Kelly got one back 3:50 later after Ottawa's sixth power play expired, backhanding a rebound over Lundqvist.

But in the third, the Rangers made a strong statement by not allowing a Senator shot until 2:16 was left. After keeping any Ottawa shots from getting through during a Nieminen penalty, a textbook play which started from their own goal resulted in breaking it open. A diving Rozsival broke up a centering feed leading to an odd-man rush. Working their magic, Jagr, Martin Straka and Nylander combined for a pretty tic-tac-toe goal which put the Rangers ahead 4-1 with 12:04 left. Nylander buried his 14th off a nifty Straka pass.

Firmly in control, the Blueshirts didn't give the Sens many chances. And anytime they got in the zone, a Ranger was in the right place to break up a rush. When Petr Sykora banked in his 13th off a Senator for a four-goal cushion with 6:09 remaining, all went right for the Rangers on this night.

Lundqvist put an exclamation point on the victory by making a glove save on a two-on-one Ottawa shorthanded rush for their first shot. The Team Sweden Olympic starter finished with 24 saves compared to only 18 for Czech Republic counterpart Hasek.

It was that kind of game for the Rangers, who will take a perfect 4-0 February record into a home-and-home against Toronto Friday and Saturday before the Olympic Break.

Notes: After a scary collision on an early shift, Rucinsky and Sykora returned to finish the game. ... With a goal and two assists, Jagr increased his league-leading total to 83 points (36-47-83). With 26 games remaining, the 83 points are his most since netting 121 (52-69-121) in '00-01. Jagr's goal tied him with Mike Bossy for 16th place on the NHL's all-time scoring list with 573. ... The Rangers paid tribute to longtime security representative Dennis "Chief" Ryan before the game. Ryan passed away Monday. ... With an assist, Steve Rucchin has five points (2-3-5) in the last four games. ... Rangers (33-15-8, 74 pts) host Maple Leafs (27-23-5, 59 pts) Friday night.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Devils Honor Their Captain Only Way They Can

The Captain would've been proud. On a night the Devils retired their first ever number in honoring the legendary Scott Stevens' Number Four to the rafters, they put together a vintage performance against the NHL's best- shutting out first overall Carolina 3-0.

Brian Gionta scored his 30th goal and tallied an assist and Scott Gomez added two helpers. Martin Brodeur made 28 saves for his fifth shutout in the last 15 games.

Against a team they lost twice to earlier this season by a 12-2 margin, the Devils took it to their second straight tough opponent. Just like they had against Ottawa in a 5-3 win Wednesday, the Devils were the aggressor against the Hurricanes.

After a tightly played scoreless first period in which both clubs totaled just 13 shots, the Devils took control in the second with two goals 4:21 apart. First, the team's new leader Patrik Elias fittingly scored the opening goal on a nifty setup by Gionta. Off a neutral zone turnover, Gionta took a Gomez pass and streaked past Aaron Ward before backhanding a pass to a cutting Elias, who buried the one-timer past rookie goalie Cam Ward at 2:18.

Only a minute later, Brodeur made his biggest save of the game when he slid out to pokecheck Erik Cole's shorthanded break-in attempt. Brodeur also got help from a hustling Brian Rafalski who rushed Cole's shot and deflected it up in the air off the side of the net.

Rookie Zach Parise increased the lead to 2-0 when he stuffed home a Grant Marshall wraparound attempt for his second goal in two games. Sergei Brylin picked up the other assist.

Despite the Canes getting more shots the final two periods (22-14), the Devils made life easier for Brodeur by letting him see most of them. Gionta recorded his first ever 30-goal season off a two-on-one when his centering pass for Elias banked in off Niclas Wallin to make it 3-0 with 11:53 left. Next in line for the captaincy, Elias wisely retrieved the puck for his linemate.

To preserve Brodeur's 80th career shutout, the Devils killed off a brief five-on-three late in the third. It was a testament to how they responded with Stevens.

For one night, a Devil got his due. The best part is they get to do it all over again on March 24th for Ken Daneyko.

Before they dropped the puck, in a 35-minute ceremony befitting of the Devils organization, they gave the future Hall-of-Fame defenseman a night to remember. By showing comments from ex-teammates during a video tribute and highlighting Stevens' illustrious 22-year career which included eight seasons with Washington, one with St. Louis and the final 13 with the franchise he led to three Stanley Cups, the Devils captured the essence of what the former 2000 Conn Smythe winner stood for. Keeping opponents honest with clean body checks and most importantly, winning.

The Devils also showered their former captain with gifts which ranged from a vintage bow and arrow recognizing Stevens' penchant for hunting to a brand new 2006 pickup truck. He also received an all expense paid vacation to California and was presented a beautiful stone from team owner Jeffrey Vanderbeek commemorating the 14 years he spent in New Jersey.

When Stevens was finally introduced by emcee Doc Emrick, the capacity crowd of 19,040 showed him their appreciation with a loud ovation for their hero. To chants of "Scott Stevens," the low key classy leader made it known how he felt.

"I think this is the first time I've ever felt intimidated on this ice surface," he said to more cheers.

The 41-year-old Stevens held up well for most of his speech which lasted over 10 minutes. He thanked members of the organization including GM Lou Lamoriello- who wisely demanded Stevens in return from St. Louis back in 1991 as compensation for Brendan Shanahan- changing the plight of the franchise. Stevens also recognized former owner John McMullen, who passed away last year. He did get emotional when mentioning having led the Devils to three Cups ('95, '00, '03). Also emotional throughout was ex-teammate Patrik Elias, who helped Stevens win those last two Cups. Elias had tears rolling down his cheeks.

"With your support, I had the best years of my career in this arena. I feel privileged to have played on three Stanley Cup championship teams and finally help the New Jersey Devils get the respect they deserve," Stevens pointedly remarked to another well deserved ovation.

When Stevens thanked the fans, they serenaded him with "Thank you Scotty" chants.

He also teared up a little bit when thanking his parents, two brothers along with wife Donna and with their three children.

As Stevens was concluding his speech, one more round of "Scotty Stevens" went up forcing him to pause before finally adding, "You guys are awesome. Thank you from the bottom of my heart."

Number Four might be gone but he'll never be forgotten in their hearts.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Rangers Storm Islanders 5-2

In a dominant effort against their archrivals, the Rangers stormed the Islanders 5-2 for their sixth win in their last eight at Nassau Coliseum Thursday night. Once again, Jaromir Jagr was the best player on the ice for either team. The league's leading scorer notched a goal and assist to help lead his club to their third win in five meetings (3-1-1) against the Isles this season. It could easily have been a lot more for Jagr, who controlled the tempo throughout.

More importantly, the Rangers stepped up with backup Kevin Weekes in net. Making his first start since a 4-3 loss at Columbus on January 16th, Weekes was much steadier in posting his first victory since December 10. Standing up more as he had practiced with goalie coach Benoit Allaire and more under control, Weekes made 23 saves in just his second start in 17 games.

While Weekes was solid, so too were his teammates. Playing inspired team defense, they made his life easier by blocking 25 shots. Just how sharp were they. In killing off two early Islander power plays, they didn't allow one shot. In fact, Weekes wasn't asked to make a save until 12 minutes had elapsed.

Like many Rangers-Islanders games, it also included an entertaining scrap between Colton Orr and Eric Godard. Dressed in place of Ville Nieminen, Orr held his own against the Isles' enforcer.

When Michael Nylander drew a penalty, the Blueshirts took advantage when Fedor Tyutin connected on the power play. Off a Jagr setup, a sprawling Rick DiPietro prevented Martin Straka from scoring from in close. But Straka followed up the play by finding his rebound and passing the puck between three Isles to a wide open Tyutin, who one-timed his sixth into a vacated net at 13:35 with DiPietro still down.

Continuing to dictate the play, on one shift the top unit of Jagr, Michael Nylander and Straka kept the Isles pinned in their own end for over a minute. They came close to scoring a couple of times but DiPietro stopped Jagr and Straka missed an open net.

When a hustling Petr Prucha drew a hooking call on Jason Blake late in the first, the Blueshirts once again made the Islanders pay the price. This time, Prucha outworked three Isles along the boards to keep a puck in. He then fed a pass to Tom Poti, who instead of shooting, passed to a wide open Steve Rucchin. Rucchin deflected the puck off the post and in with 32 seconds left for a two-goal lead. It was his second goal in two games.

A potential turning point came early in the second. With the Islanders starting to generate some chances off their cycle, Weekes made a key stop on Arron Asham. Then, Rucchin worked the puck out to Martin Rucinsky, who fired a harmless wrister from the left wing that fooled DiPietro. The puck trickled out of DiPietro's glove and took a funny hop into the net for Rucinsky's 13th to make it 3-0 at 2:16.

In complete control, New York increased it to four with a bit of history made. On their third power play, Michal Rozsival sprung Straka for a breakaway but as he attempted his shot, one-time Ranger Joel Bouchard hooked him down leading to a penalty shot. In the 34-year series, the Rangers had never scored against the Isles on a penalty shot. DiPietro was also a perfect four-for-four in his career. Those both changed when Straka beat the Islander netminder to the stickside for a four-goal cushion at 10:13.

Down four, the Islanders finally started playing more inspired and forced Weekes to make several tough saves to end the period. Continuing to work hard, they finally got back in the game when Mark Parrish potted a rebound past Weekes on a power play 3:14 into the third. While Parrish scored, Darius Kasparaitis wound up with an interference penalty pushing Jason Blake into Weekes.

Though the Rangers penalty killing unit did a good job denying the Isles, they continued to press by recovering pucks in the corners and getting more shots from the point. When Oleg Kvasha's shot was redirected by Parrish over Weekes' glove, suddenly it was 4-2 with 10:41 remaining.

It forced Ranger Coach Tom Renney to use a timeout to settle down his team. The timeout worked as he saw his team respond by cycling the puck effectively in the Islanders' zone. It started with another big shift from the Jagr line and continued with an impressive shift from the third line of Prucha, Jason Ward and Marcel Hossa. The second line of Rucinsky, Rucchin and Petr Sykora also got the puck in deep taking more time off.

Having finally regained the momentum, they put it away with a textbook play which started from behind their net. In as team oriented a goal as you'll see, all five Rangers touched the puck before Straka setup Jagr for his 34th goal with 3:09 left to put an exclamation point on the contest. Working the puck up the ice, Nylander drew a couple of Islanders and fed Straka on the left wing. When two Isles converged on him, Straka quickly thredded the needle to Jagr for a perfect one-timer over DiPietro.

DiPietro turned aside 22 of 27.

Notes: Islanders had their three-game winning streak snapped. ... With 70 points in their first 54 games, the Rangers eclipsed their '03-04 total of 69. ... Islanders defenseman Alexei Zhitnik sat out with a sprained ankle suffered against Washington Tuesday. ... In a nice tribute during a break, both benches along with the fans gave a standing ovation to Islander Kevin Colley, who underwent four hours of surgery for a broken neck suffered Tuesday when he crashed into the boards. He will undergo a second procedure next week. ... Straka is three-for-seven on penalty shots. ... With the win and a Buffalo 4-2 win over Philadelphia, the Rangers tied the Flyers for first in the Atlantic. Rangers (31-15-8, 70 points) travel to Philadelphia (31-14-8, 70 points) Saturday (5 PM).

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Rucchin Helps Rangers Past Pens

Steve Rucchin scored a shorthanded goal and setup another to help lift the Rangers past Pittsburgh (12-31-10) 3-1 at The Garden Wednesday night. It was the Pens' 13th loss in 14.

Coming off a tough 3-2 OT loss to the Flyers, the Blueshirts figured to fare better against a team they pounded 7-1 four days ago. But this time, a rested Pens club played more inspired while the Rangers struggled throughout. They made some sloppy turnovers and overpassed the puck while shying away from the physical department. As fortune would have it, Pittsburgh still couldn't take advantage.

On an early Pittsburgh power play, Rucchin scored the team's second shorthanded goal of the season unassisted at 4:05. While killing a Marcel Hossa hooking penalty, Rucchin intercepted a Sidney Crosby pass at the blueline and broke away. With two Penguins trailing, Rucchin deked Marc-Andre Fleury to the forehand and put home his 10th of the season for an early lead.

The Rangers would get several glorious chances to go up two goals but were way too fancy and watched Fleury stone them. On one such opportunity, Michael Nylander dropped a pass for Martin Straka, who shot with the Pens goalie down. But somehow, a sprawling Fleury got a piece of it and then Marek Malik missed over the net.

With Fleury keeping his team in it, the Pens were able to tie the game on a late power play goal thanks to Mark Recchi, who notched his 18th with just 10 seconds remaining in the first. Taking the puck from Fleury, Recchi carried through three Rangers and fired a wrist shot through Henrik Lundqvist. Afterwards, Jed Ortmeyer broke his stick in frustration at the bench.

The Rangers would retake the lead on a power play goal of their own halfway through the second. After a couple of key stops by Lundqvist which kept it tied, Jaromir Jagr drew a hooking call on Colby Armstrong. After coming close earlier, this time New York took advantage when in a similar theme from Saturday, ex-Pen Michal Rozsival connected for his fourth of the season. Sneaking in from the point, he one-timed a Straka feed past Fleury at 10:33. Playing in his 700th career game, Nylander added an assist. Out of Rozsival's four goals in '05-06, three have come against his former club.

After each team took turns killing penalties, the period came to an end with the Rangers still up 2-1.

In the third, the Pens pressed hard for the equalizer but were either turned aside by surprise starter Lundqvist or a goalie's best friend. The post. Expected to rest in favor of backup Kevin Weekes, Lundqvist instead made his seventh consecutive start. As usual, the unflappable 23-year-old Calder hopeful was sharp. Off a couple of brutal turnovers, Lundqvist kept his team ahead with clutch stops from in close on Michel Ouellet and a Recchi tip-in attempt. For the night, he finished with 24 saves, posting his 22nd win of the season. He also had some luck when Armstrong and Guillaume Lefebvre hit posts.

Not long after, Straka had a golden chance to put the Rangers up two. On a two-on-one, he waited before firing a wrist shot which Fleury snapped away with a quick glove. Fleury had 23 saves.

They finally put the Pens away on another power play. With two players in front, a Poti one-timer was redirected leading to a rebound. The play was made by Rucchin, who was voted the game's First Star. With Rucchin unable to finish due to a backcheck, the crafty pivot slipped a pass to Petr Sykora, who buried the chance past Fleury for his 11th of the season with 10:09 left.

Just how solid was Rucchin on this night. He dominated in the faceoff circle, winning 16 of 21. The Rangers had been struggling in that department since losing Blair Betts to an MCL sprain a month ago. Led by Rucchin, they went 38-20 against the Penguins.

They'll need more of that later tonight against the rival Islanders, who have suddenly won three straight. Fasten your seatbelts.

Notes: With his 22nd win this season, Lundqvist tied for third most by a Rangers rookie. Johnny Bower and Jim Henry share the franchise record with 29. ... Rangers were two-for-eight on the power play. ... Blueshirts are now 17-6-5 at MSG. ... Crosby played with the flu, finishing with four shots. ... New York is 5-1-1 in season series and improved their record against Atlantic Division foes to 12-3-5. ... Weekes is expected to make his first start Thursday at Nassau Coliseum since a 4-3 loss at Columbus January 16. ... Rangers (30-15-8, 68 points) meet Islanders (23-25-3, 49 points) for fifth time this season and first in 2006. They are 2-1-1 so far.