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

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