Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Islanders Swamp Devils Again

Like a broken record, the Devils once again fell to the Islanders- making it three straight losses to their Long Island rivals. But unlike the last two which needed shootouts, this time the Islanders thoroughly dominated them in a 6-1 blowout loss at the Continental Airlines Arena Tuesday night. It was the second consecutive defeat in which they allowed six goals and also marked the first time since '96-97 (December 31, 1996, and Jan 2, 1997) that Martin Brodeur was pulled in back-to-back starts.

Thankfully, it's the last time the Devils see them in the regular season with 17 games remaining. Only two points up on slumping Tampa Bay, three ahead of Montreal and suddenly just six ahead of ninth place Atlanta, the sixth in the East Devils find themselves in a tight playoff race.

Alexei Yashin and Sean Bergenheim each had three points and Rick DiPietro made 16 saves to spark the suddenly sizzling Isles to their fourth win in a row and pull within five points of Montreal for the final playoff spot.

"I thought we had a good shot all along," DiPietro told the AP. "As far back as we were, we realized we weren't playing our best hockey. Guys have been waiting patiently to turn things around. It's starting to happen now and it's an exciting time for us."

For DiPietro, it was his seventh straight win spanning the Olympic Break. In his last four games, he's allowed just four goals.

Though he didn't make many big stops, none proved bigger than a flat out robbery of a point blank Jamie Langenbrunner chance with the game still scoreless. Alone in the slot, Langenbrunner was setup perfectly by Jay Pandolfo and ripped a shot labeled for the top corner but a sprawling DiPietro made a huge glove save to thwart him. He also denied a Langenbrunner wraparound.

Shortly after, the Isles took the lead when one of their deadline acquisitions struck. Jeff Tambellini scored his first NHL goal when he put home a Shawn Bates rebound past a sprawling Brodeur at 7:23.

A fluky bounce would give them a two-goal margin 7:32 later. Off a rush, Bergenheim took a shot which caromed back to him. He quickly fired the rebound from a sharp angle and the puck hoppped off Brodeur's glove inside the post for his first of the season. Yashin and Alexei Zhitnik notched assists.

After being outplayed severely in the first period (outshot 11-4), the Devils came out with more physical play which led to a couple of early chances. But a sharp DiPietro kept them from getting back in it.

With the Devil offense stymied, the Isles took control when Yashin tallied twice 7:09 apart. Both goals were setup by Bergenheim on the rush. Taking advantage of some poor defensive coverage, Bergenheim and Yashin combined to put the contest out of reach. The first goal came when a Bergenheim centering pass trickled right to a cutting Yashin, who quickly fired it by Brodeur at 11:09.

The second tally came on a Bergenheim wraparound attempt which caromed to Yashin for his 21st to give the Islanders a commanding four-goal cushion with 1:42 left.

When Bates and John Erskine beat Brodeur from inside the blueline 5:01 into the third, his night was over early. For the second game in a row, backup Scott Clemmensen replaced him. Brodeur finished with 18 saves.

"I played 25 minutes and 35 minutes in two games," Brodeur said. "I shouldn't be tired. I'm tired of getting scored on, that's it."

Erskine's first goal as an Islander put the exclamation point on their sixth victory in eight meetings (6-1-1) against New Jersey this season.

Only a Paul Martin goal off a fortunate bounce with 9:01 left prevented the shutout.

Notes: Islander defenseman Alexei Zhitnik left the game in the second period with an ankle injury and didn't return. ... Devil defenseman Richard Matvichuk (back) missed his sixth consecutive game. ... Jason Wiemer did not play for the Devils due to immigration issues but could make his Devil debut Thursday night against the Penguins. ... Brodeur has allowed 12 goals on 39 shots in the last two starts. His next win will tie him with Jacques Plante (435) for fourth place all-time. ... New Jersey (33-24-8, 74 pts) hosts Pittsburgh (16-37-12, 44 pts) Thursday night.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Canes Storm Rangers, Skid At Six

The losing streak is now at six with no end in sight. But somehow, the Rangers still lead the Atlantic Division by two points. They could be tied with the Flyers when they return home Thursday to begin a crucial four-game homestand against Washington when they try to get out of this funk.

"It's not a good situation that we are in," Jaromir Jagr told the AP afterwards. "Everybody knows how important these next four games are at home. It might be our season. That's the way I look at it. I thought we started playing better in the last two games. It's just that the results are not there."

They fell to the Eastern Conference-leading Hurricanes 5-3 at the RBC Center Tuesday night. Doug Weight had two goals and an assist and Martin Gerber made 41 saves to lift Carolina past the Rangers- snapping their own three-game losing streak.

Once again without their most valuable defenseman Marek Malik due to a sprained shoulder sustained in a 2-1 loss at New Jersey March 4 when this winless streak began, the Rangers continued to have problems in their own end leading directly to goals against.

The first such problem arose when Matt Cullen redirected an Aaron Ward feed past ex-Cane Kevin Weekes at 8:57. After a strong shift by the top unit of Martin Rucinsky, Michael Nylander and Jagr, Carolina caught them in transition leading to Cullen's tally where he used Tom Poti as a screen.

Making his first start in five games, Weekes was sharp (24 saves) despite seeing less pucks. Facing an eye opening amount of odd-man rushes and quality chances, he kept his team in the game. When Nylander converted a Fedor Tyutin pass which banked off a skate right to him in the slot, the game was tied just 5:35 later. Jagr notched his 50th assist of the season.

Carolina retook the lead 3:07 into the second when Weight tallied his first of the night. Taking advantage of a sloppy turnover by Jason Ward who failed to clear the puck out, Andrew Ladd worked the puck around to Glen Wesley before he fed a vacated Weight at the left point. Weight's wrist shot deflected off Blair Betts past Weekes.

It would get worse for the Blueshirts thanks to an undisciplined Nylander high sticking double minor. Off a three-on-two rush, Weight one-timed a Ray Whitney feed past Weekes' blocker to make it 3-1 8:01 later.

Just a few minutes later, Martin Straka was hooked down from behind and awarded a penalty shot. But as he tried to deke Gerber to the backhand, the Carolina netminder swatted it away to keep his team ahead by two.

New York drew within one though with just 17 seconds remaining in the period when Nylander registered his second of the night on the power play. During a mad scramble in which Gerber thought he had covered the puck, Sandis Ozolinsh worked it out to Nylander who buried it inside the crossbar for his 17th of the season. Petr Prucha got the secondary assist for his second point in two games since returning from an MCL sprain.

But Carolina defenseman Mike Commodore restored the two-goal lead 5:47 into the third for his second in two games against the Rangers. He also scored in Carolina's 2-1 win at MSG March 6. It was another goal where nobody picked up the pinching Commodore, who one-timed Justin Williams' feed past a helpless Weekes.

In a period in which the Rangers outshot the Canes 18-8, they continued to press and finally were rewarded with less than two minutes to go when Petr Sykora's one-timer from the slot snuck through Gerber to pull them within one.

But it was too little too late when recent acquisition Ozolinsh turned over the puck to Cory Stillman at his own blueline with Weekes pulled. Amazingly, Ozolinsh moved his legs out of the way of Stillman's empty netter which sealed the Rangers' fate.

It summed up this team perfectly since the Olympic Break with only four points (1-4-2) in its first seven games. Barring a total collapse, they should make their first postseason since 1997. 17 games remaining. The question is will they be able to regain the momentum they have lost.

Notes: One game after tweaking his left knee and leaving early against Atlanta Sunday, left wing Martin Rucinsky suited up but reinjured it in the first and didn't return. ... Nylander's goals broke a six-game drought without a point. ... With their victory, Carolina established new franchise marks in wins (44), home wins (27) and points (94) for a season- breaking records set by the '86-87 Whalers. ... Carolina defensemen Bret Hedican (illness) and Niclas Wallin (injury) did not play. ... Rangers (36-19-10, 82 pts) host Washington (22-35-7, 51 pts) Thursday night.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Isles Ship Kvasha To Phoenix

The selling off of players continued for the Islanders at today's deadline. Having already moved Mark Parrish and Brent Sopel to the Kings a day earlier in exchange for prospects Denis Grebeshkov and Jeff Tambellini plus a conditional third round pick, existing GM Mike Milbury pulled off two more deals for the future.

Coupled with Montreal's 3-0 shutout of Boston later Thursday night, the Isles trail the eighth place Canadiens by nine points with 21 games remaining while Montreal has 20 left.

After dealing away Brad Lukowich to the Devils for a 2006 third round pick, Milbury finally found a taker for Oleg Kvasha- shipping the 27-year-old center to Phoenix for an '06 third round pick.

Originally acquired by Milbury along with Parrish in a Draft Day blockbuster trade back on June 24, 2000 for Olli Jokinen and Roberto Luongo, Kvasha was a classic underachiever as an Islander.

Possessing all the skills to become a top line talent, the enigmatic Kvasha never fulfilled expectations. Returning from the lockout off an '03-04 in which he posted career highs in goals (15), assists (36), points (51) and games (81), he struggled mightily with a disappointing 21 points (9-12-21) in 49 contests this season.

In 332 career games with the Islanders, Kvasha finished with 60 goals, 96 assists for 156 points.

Devils Upgrade Blueline, Acquire Isles' Lukowich

With the trade deadline finally here, the Devils made two more deals to upgrade their their blueline. A day after acquiring defenseman Ken Klee from Toronto for prospect Aleksander Suglobov, GM Lou Lamoriello went across town for some help this time- sending a 2006 third round pick to the Islanders for Brad Lukowich.

The 29-year-old Lukowich is an experienced stay-at-home physical defenseman. He's also a proven winner, having won a Stanley Cup with the '04 Lightning.

"Brad Lukowich provides additional depth and experience to our defense," Lamoriello told the AP.

Signed by the Islanders to a multiyear deal worth $2 million last summer, he is under contract for next season. In his first season with the Isles, the Cranbrook British Columbia native had a goal and 12 assists for 13 points along with 32 penalty minutes and a minus-three rating in 57 games.

Ironically, Lukowich also was part of the '99 Cup champion Stars but only got into eight postseason games to fall short of having his name on the Cup. He played with current Devils Jamie Langenbrunner, Grant Marshall and Richard Matvichuk. Reunited in New Jersey, the ex-Dallas quartet will be looking for a similar result.

In order to make room for Lukowich, defenseman Sean Brown was dealt to Vancouver in exchange for a 2006 fourth round pick.

Re-signed by the Devils before the season, the former Boston '95 first round selection had 12 points along with a minus-14 rating in 35 contests.

Devils Add Wiemer To Fold: Adding some grit up front, New Jersey sent a fourth round pick to Calgary for forward Jason Wiemer. Wiemer, 29, is a capable fourth liner who can take the body and drop the gloves.

In 33 games with the Flames, Wiemer had a goal with two assists to go with 65 PIM. His grinding style should make him a welcome asset.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Jagr's Illegal Sticks Cost Rangers Point

Maybe now Jaromir Jagr will have legal sticks at the bench. Twice, he was victimized for illegal sticks in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Thrashers at Philips Arena. It was the third consecutive one-goal defeat for the Rangers.

Already victimized in overtime, Jagr was found to have another bad stick by referees Don Koharski and Mike Hasenfratz before the shootout. As part of the new rules since the Olympic Break, officials must measure the first shooter's sticks to make sure they are within league rules. Jagr was disqualified. Baffled by the explanation, an animated Jagr mildly protested at the bench.

On the strength of two successive dekes by Michael Nylander and Petr Sykora sandwiched around a Marc Savard tally, the Blueshirts were one shot away from a win. But after Martin Rucinsky ran out of real estate, Slava Kozlov deked Henrik Lundqvist putting the puck just inside the crossbar to force a fourth round. When Kari Lehtonen swatted aside Martin Straka's try and Marian Hossa beat Lundqvist to the glove side, Atlanta (30-27-6) pulled within one point of eighth seed Montreal for the final playoff spot.

With the trade deadline approaching at 3 PM later today, it might indicate that the team needs to make a move. Before the game, the Rangers announced that they had traded left wing Ville Nieminen to San Jose in exchange for a 2006 third round pick.

Despite Coach Tom Renney's insistence on wanting to see his team get off to a quicker start, it didn't happen. Just 1:13 into the game, Ilya Kovalchuk's centering feed deflected off Michal Rozsival past Lundqvist to put the Rangers behind for the third straight game. In an alarming trend, they haven't led at any point since a 6-1 triumph at Philadelphia last Thursday. That's the last 185:00 without a lead.

The Blueshirts drew even when Jagr connected on a five-on-three for his league-leading 43rd at 6:24. Taking advantage of two Atlanta penalties 24 seconds apart, Jagr worked a give-and-go with Martin Rucinsky to perfection with his one-timer eluding Lehtonen's glove.

On an Atlanta power play with under five minutes left in the first, Jason Ward was hooked down from behind while breaking in shorthanded. Though, he got off a shot which Lehtonen stopped, he was awarded a penalty shot. But on it, as he attempted to deke the Atlanta rookie netminder, the puck slid off his stick wide to keep the game knotted.

With both goalies sharp throughout, Atlanta took the play to the Rangers in the second period outshooting them 15-9. In as sloppy a period as the Rangers have played this season, they somehow managed to kill off all six Thrasher power plays including two five-on-three's. Thanks in large part to some big saves from Lundqvist, the game was still tied. But shortly after they killed off a Blair Betts interference minor, the Rangers D got caught napping resulting in Atlanta regaining the lead on a Serge Aubin tally with 1:23 left. Left alone in the slot, Aubin one-timed a Brad Larsen feed through Lundqvist.

Fortunately for them, rookie defenseman Thomas Pock struck back 1:16 later to tie it with seven seconds left. Off a Rucinsky pass, Pock's slapshot sailed through a maze of players past Lehtonen. His first goal of the season came at a huge moment and allowed his team to gain a valuable point in the standings. Coupled with the Flyers 3-2 shootout win over Carolina, they're only a point ahead for the Atlantic Division with 20 games remaining. With an extra game at hand plus the one point Pock got them, it could prove to be the difference.

That's if the Rangers rediscover the winning formula by the weekend.

Notes: Defenseman Marek Malik (chest) sat out his second consecutive game. ... Atlanta defenseman Garnet Exelby left the game in the third period due to a Ryan Hollweg hit along the boards. ... Rangers are now 5-2 in shootouts while Atlanta won their fourth in a row to improve to 4-4. ... The win was the Thrashers' third straight despite finishing 0-for-9 on the PP. ... In the battle of rookie netminders, Lundqvist finished with 33 saves while counterpart Lehtonen stopped 32 before the SO. ... Rangers (36-17-9, 81 pts) travel to Montreal (29-23-9, 67 pts) Saturday night before returning home Sunday to play Atlanta again.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Hard Hits: Sports and Life

Sometimes, as sports junkies, we can get carried away following our favorite teams and players during seasons. This really isn't surprising as many of us live and die with them. Sports are a way for us to get away from everyday life issues.

There are instances when things aren't so rosy in our lives which create stress. By cheering for our teams, it can take some of that added pressure off and enjoy some of the best athletes at their peak.

While it's great to attend a sport live and cheer like crazy when your team wins and feel like you're part of it, there's also a part that wishes you were out there. I believe every one of us are ultracompetitive and want to be out there competing. At one point in our lives, we did.

I ran cross country track in high school and played baseball, basketball and tennis when I was younger. There was no better feeling than completing a big race and making that time to help my teammates finish in the top four schools out on Staten Island in what was considered the biggest race. I can still recall how excited I was after one race which propelled me to Varsity for a trip to Brown University. Without a doubt, one of my best moments. Of course, it would be followed up by one of my worst at Brown when I had a rough race. Not breaking in some new shoes before I ran was a big mistake. It happens to the best of us sometimes. I was a starry-eyed 15-year-old kid who didn't know any better. Of course when I reflect back on that day now, I see someone who gave it his best but was overcome by the moment.

At this point, you're probably wondering why I'm writing this. To make a point. That as great as sports are, we all have to take care of ourselves. Some of us might not be in the shape we once were. And if that's true, you have to stay on your toes. Just ask the now gone far too early 45-year-old former Twin Kirby Puckett, who passed away from a severe stroke this past Monday.

Puckett was one of those athletes who I had a ton of respect for. Outside of being a diehard Yankee fan whose favorite ballplayer was Don Mattingly, Puckett was one of my favorite players to watch. I enjoyed how much energy the undersized (5-foot-8) centerfielder put into each game with Minnesota. He played like his life depended upon it. And the enthusiasm he brought to the field everyday was a pleasure to watch. You could tell that this was a guy who knew he was playing a kid's game and had that wide eyed grin of satisfaction to go along with it.

All Puckett did was prove the critics wrong in going on to a Hall of Fame 12-year career in which he was a 10-time All Star and led the Twins to two World Series championships. I will never forget that dramatic walkoff home run in Game Six of the '91 World Series against the Braves which extended it to an equally as riveting Game Seven in which Jack Morris tossed a 10 inning 1-0 shutout to give the Twins their second title in five years.

Unfortunately, Puckett's career was cut short by glaucoma after the 1995 season, retiring at just 35. Though he only amassed 207 lifetime homers and one batting title, the 2,304 career hits, .318 lifetime batting average and six Gold Gloves plus the flair he played with allowed him to be elected into Cooperstown on the first ballot in 2001. For all the naysayers who say he doesn't belong, how many more 200 hit seasons would he have had if he wasn't forced out early? He definitely would've been a lock for 3,000. When you combine the two World Series, that's plenty in my book.

It's very sad that Puckett became the second youngest Hall of Famer to die. Only Lou Gehrig passed away sooner at only 37. The real tragedy in Kirby's death is that it could've been prevented. After retirement, Puckett didn't take care of himself and put on too much weight. Before he suffered the stroke Sunday which proved fatal, many of his friends and former teammates were concerned that something like this could happen.

If only he had stayed in better shape, maybe he'd still be alive. This is a former standout athlete we're talking about, which is the haunting reality. It can happen to anyone. That's why I get out for walks in the park as much as possible. Aside from the fact that I enjoy taking in all the outdoor elements, the exercise is worth it. It keeps me feeling good, which is all it takes.

What must be realized is that the older you get, the harder it is to keep in shape. That is unless you're active. The harsh reality is that we're all racing against the clock, which is why exercise is so important. I believe we all want to live long and prosperous lives. In order to make it that far, you have to stay ahead of the curve.

That's why continuing to take part in sports activities could pay off in the end. We only have one life to live. Never forget it!

Hitting Back:

-If you take out Kirby Puckett's two championships, his numbers look eerily similar to Don Mattingly. Plus Mattingly won an MVP and more Gold Gloves. They didn't call him Donnie Baseball for nothing.

-Now that the Knicks have won back-to-back games for the first time in two months, has Isiah Thomas earned himself a contract extension yet?

-They sure are packing them in for these preliminary World Baseball Classic games. If I didn't know any better, I would've thought I was watching a '91 Yankees game at The Stadium featuring Mel Hall, Matt Nokes and Scott Sanderson.

-Do you think the Yankees are going to get the message that Ron Villone and Mike Myers aren't solving their lefty problems out of the bullpen? At least they still got 40-year-old Al Leiter. What? Jesse Orosco wasn't available?!?!?!?!?!

-When does Pedro's toe become a new book title?

-So two San Francisco Chronicle reporters who broke the BALCO story 15 months ago now want you to buy their new book "Game of Shadows" detailing Barry Bonds' use of performance-enhancing drugs. One question. Aren't these the same reporters who looked the other way when Bonds was setting all sorts of records? Anything for the mighty buck.

-It's nice to see tennis finally get it right and make instant replay challenges available to players at future ATP and WTA events. There have been far too many crucial calls missed during matches, which is why you know John McEnroe is smiling. Still, I'm going to miss those classic player-chair umpire confrontations.

-It's exciting to see a local school such as Iona back in The Big Dance. Wouldn't it be great if they put a scare into some higher seed in the first round next week?

-I can't figure out if it's good or bad that all these NHL games are being decided by shootouts. But it's definitely better than watching teams sit back and play the dreaded trap. I thought the new NHL rules eliminated that?

-Can anyone remember the last time the NBA was relevant? Win valuable prizes!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Devils Turn Tables On Rangers, Stop Win Streak At Seven

The last time the Rangers played the Devils, they defeated them at MSG 3-1 on January 22 to snap the Devils' season best nine-game win streak. This time, the roles were reversed before a capacity Continental Airlines Arena where the Blueshirts fell to their Lincoln Tunnel rivals 2-1 Saturday night- stopping their win streak at seven.

Martin Brodeur made 26 saves in outdueling Kevin Weekes to help put New Jersey (32-22-7) within nine points of the Atlantic Division-leading Rangers. With his team ahead 2-1, the Devils netminder stopped all 12 third period shots to become the first goalie in NHL history to post 30 wins in 10 straight seasons.

"It's one of the things I like most about the records that I'm doing," Brodeur said to the AP after the game. "One thing I wanted to be in my career is consistent. That's one thing Patrick Roy was able to do throughout his career and I tried to go the same way. It means you've been healthy and successful."

On the strength of a Brian Gionta power play goal, Brodeur and the Devils checking line of Jay Pandolfo, John Madden and Jamie Langenbrunner made the one-goal lead stand up. In particular, the checking line held the NHL's leading scorer Jaromir Jagr in check. With 91 points entering the contest, Jagr came in red hot having posted six consecutive multipoint games (9-6-15). But against an effective shadowing job by Pandolfo, he was held without a point and managed just three shots. Given little room, Jagr was unable to solve the New Jersey D.

Ahead a goal, the Devils opted to sit back and protect the lead in a tight third. The strategy almost backfired on them. Twice, Brodeur was fortunate when attacking Rangers hit two posts 1:32 apart. A target all night, Darius Kasparaitis had Brodeur beaten but his backhand rang off the post with under 11 minutes to play. Shortly after, ex-Devil Petr Sykora's slap shot deflected off the crossbar to keep New Jersey ahead.

"The games are getting tougher and tougher," said Kasparaitis. "We have to respond. We've played well all season and now people expect us to win."

It wasn't the last nerve-racking moment for the Devils. With under three minutes remaining, Michael Nylander came close but Brodeur blockered away the chance and Nylander lost control of a wraparound attempt, which Brodeur covered up. It was the last big chance the Rangers had.

In a fitting conclusion, the Madden line outworked the Jagr unit by pinning them deep. With time running down, the Rangers were able to get one final rush but Brodeur easily sticked out a Nylander shot for the victory.

Early on, the Devils controlled the tempo. Outshooting New York 9-5 in a closely contested first, they took the lead when a streaking Scott Gomez put home a Brian Gionta rebound at the goalmouth with 2:41 to go. It was Gomez' 22nd of the season.

Not even a minute later, Grant Marshall got retribution on Kasparaitis for a borderline hit which knocked him out of their last game. With Kasparaitis playing a puck with his head turned away, Marshall gave the defenseman a right forearm, which drew a roughing minor. Though it was an undisciplined penalty, Marshall's teammates killed it off to take the lead to the locker room.

The Rangers needed just 1:17 to draw even in the second when Martin Rucinsky beat Brodeur on a breakaway. Off a Gomez turnover, Rucinsky took a Sykora feed and broke in on the netminder and put a backhand in, avoiding Brodeur's pokecheck.

But in a period in which they dictated play, four straight penalties killed their momentum. The Devils took advantage of a Martin Rucinsky hooking call to regain the lead. They had it when Gionta finished a Gomez pass at the doorstep for his team-leading 34th at 10:27. It would turn out to be the winner.

Notes: Marshall received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for making a chicken gesture at Kasparaitis after his fight challenge was turned down late in the second. ... Ranger defenseman Marek Malik left the game in the first after a Cam Janssen hit along the boards. ... Devil defenseman Richard Matvichuk missed his second game in a row with a stomach virus. ... Devils left wing Patrik Elias sat out his third straight game with a bruised rib. ... In his third start in a row spanning the Olympic Break, Weekes turned aside 18 of 20 shots. Swedish gold medallist Henrik Lundqvist is expected to start for the Rangers (36-16-8, 80 pts) Monday against conference leader Carolina (42-14-4, 88 pts).

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Seventh Heaven For Blueshirts

Not even the Olympic Break could cool off the Rangers. In their first game back from an 18-day layoff, the Atlantic Division leaders stormed the second place Flyers 6-1 at the Wachovia Center Thursday night. It was their seventh straight win and moved them 21 games over .500 and four points ahead of Philadelphia.

Playing with a sore groin, the league's leading scorer Jaromir Jagr showed no ill effects tallying his 41st and 42nd goals with an assist to increase his total to 91 points. With 80 points and 23 games remaining, this is the latest the Rangers have been in first since '95-96. They'll look to put some more distance between themselves and third place New Jersey Saturday.

Early on, they were a little rusty. Surrendering the game's first three power plays to the Flyers, they allowed 13 of the first 14 shots. Fortunately, scheduled starter Kevin Weekes was razor sharp in turning them aside to keep it scoreless. He stopped all 15 shots in a busy first period which turned on a late power play goal by Michael Nylander.

After being on their heels the majority of the period, the Blueshirts took advantage of a late Eric Desjardins holding penalty to jump in front. A hustling Martin Straka setup a two-on-none down low in which Jagr setup Nylander at 17:34 for a tap-in against a helpless Robert Esche.

Ahead by one early in the second, the Rangers capitalized on some undisciplined play by Donald Brashear and Derian Hatcher. With the Flyers enforcer targeting Darius Kasparaitis, Brashear lost his cool when he retaliated by pulling Kasparaitis' helmet off in response to a clean hit. After a Hatcher slash made it a five-on-three, Jagr made them pay by scoring on both ends 27 seconds apart. The first PPG gave him 1,399 points for his career- passing Jari Kurri for the most all-time by a European-trained player. Only Stan Mikita (1,467) had more but he was raised mostly in Canada.

On a broken play, Jagr became the 17th player in NHL history to pick up career point number 1,400 when he put home his own rebound. It forced Flyer coach Ken Hitchcock to pull Esche in favor of silver medallist Antero Niittymaki. It wouldn't take long for them to get to Niittymaki.

With the Flyers coming unglued, Blair Betts made it three goals in a 1:58 span when he surprised Niittymaki with a wrist shot through traffic for a 4-0 lead. In his first game back from an MCL sprain, Betts tallied his fifth of the season and first since November 24. He also won 10-of-15 draws and was plus-two in 12:51 along with some splendid penalty killing work which saw the Rangers kill off eight of nine Philadelphia power plays. Meanwhile, they were a sizzling four-of-six on the PP.

Freddy Meyer IV got one back on a four-on-three at 9:32 when he one-timed a Joni Pitkanen feed inside the crossbar. But Philly's momentum was shortlived. Just 18 seconds later, Jason Ward scored unassisted to restore the four-goal cushion. Off a blind pass by Randy Jones, Ward skated in and retrieved the gift by deking a surprised Niittymaki for his 10th of the season.

With the outcome all but decided, New York added insult to injury by killing off a Flyer five-on-three with under 9:00 left. Weekes denied Jeff Carter's stuff-in tries for two of his sparkling 36 saves. It was his third consecutive victory.

As time was winding down, Brashear once again sought out Kasparaitis. Deliberately punching him with his gloves on, Brashear drew a holding minor, fighting major, instigator, misconduct and game misconduct all on the same reckless play with 1:53 remaining. In total, he finished with 35 penalty minutes on the night. His actions will earn him an automatic one-game suspension due to the new league rules which permit any late game scraps with under five minutes to go.

Martin Rucinsky put an exclamation point on the victory when he blasted his 15th inside the post with 1:12 left.

Notes: Ten different Rangers registered a point. Rucinsky finished with a goal and assist while Steve Rucchin added two helpers. ... Ward's 10 goals and 23 points are career highs. ... Esche allowed three goals on seven shots in 25 minutes before Niittymaki relieved him. Niittymaki finished with 16 saves the rest of the way. ... Blueshirts lead season series 3-0-2. ... Rangers (36-15-8, 80 pts) travel to Devils (31-22-7, 69 pts) Saturday night (7:30 PM) for the seventh meeting of the season. They own a 4-1-1 record thus far.

Hard Hits: Redick or Morrison

The debate has raged for months during an exciting college basketball season. If you needed a player to take one final shot with the game on the line, who would it be? Duke's J.J. Redick or Gonzaga's Adam Morrison?

Both have enjoyed remarkable seasons in which each are averaging 28 points-or-better. Morrison currently leads the nation in scoring (28.8 PPG) while Redick ranks second (28.1 PPG).

So how does one determine which is better? Redick plays in the tougher conference in the ACC while Morrison competes in the West Coast Conference. Most experts believe that should give Redick an edge for National Player of The Year. But is he really better than Morrison?

There's little doubt that the all-time leading scorer at Duke is the most dangerous outside shooter in the country. He has unlimited range, turning a wide open 30 footer into a layup. Even if contested off a screen the sharpshooting Blue Devil shows no fear. If he's on, nobody is more lethal. Redick enters the weekend shooting 48.9 percent from the field including 42.6 on trifectas.

Playing against opponents such as North Carolina, Maryland, Boston College, Wake Forest and Florida State make those numbers even more remarkable. Even though it's been a down year for the ACC, it's still coming against some of the best competition.

What's most impressive about the Duke senior is how hard he's worked to improve his game off the dribble. At one time, Redick was just a stand still shooter who needed room to be effective. But that's no longer the case. He can beat opponents off the dribble and doesn't force as much when it's not there, which makes him a very difficult player to defend.

While Redick has been ripping it up, Morrison has risen to new levels as well starring for Gonzaga out west. The Bulldogs have gotten a lot more respect the last several years since a miraculous run to the Elite Eight in '99. But Morrison's scoring prowess has them ranked fifth and thinking bigger things this year.

For as great a season as Redick's had, Morrison is actually a little bit better statistically. Remarkably, he's shooting over 50 percent (50.9) from the field, including an impressive 43.8 on three's. He might not attempt as many as Redick but certainly doesn't lack any confidence in pulling the trigger when it's needed.

Just ask Oklahoma State earlier this season about that. They were within an eyelash of upsetting the Bulldogs and snapping their home winning streak. But when they didn't convert at the charity stripe, Gonzaga called timeout. Afterwards, they quickly marched down the court and got the ball to Morrison. Tightly guarded, he dribbled to his right and fired from 25 feet out with seconds to spear. The ball calmly banked in off the glass sending Zags' supporters into a frenzy. It gave them a two-point win.

The 6-7 junior small forward has demonstrated this season that he can take over a game when his team needs it. As evidenced, he can do it from the outside. But also, Morrison has the ability to break defenders down off the dribble. Without the ball, he routinely comes free for open looks, which makes him tough to handle.

Over two weeks ago, with his team again in danger of falling at home, Morrison scored 12 of his 34 points in the last three minutes to rescue them to a four point win over Stanford.

It's that kind of calm under pressure which makes Morrison a truly special player. He wants the ball with the game on the line. Just watch a Gonzaga game. When it's tight, no player commands it more. He has said that he wants to decide whether or not Gonzaga wins or loses. That is the mark of a player who is not afraid to put himself on the line for the good of his team. It's what makes this college basketball season a lot of fun to watch.

When the stakes are higher in a couple of weeks at The Big Dance, that's when the best players ratchet up their level and take over games to carry their teams to championships. Carmelo Anthony did it for Syracuse three years ago. Emeka Okafor led Connecticut to its second title in 2004 and Sean May propelled North Carolina to the championship last year.

That's why I can't wait to see if Morrison or Redick can do the same thing when the lights shine brightest. Maybe that's what decides once and for all which player is better.

Tune in for March Madness. If you blink, you might miss something worthwhile.

Hitting Back:

-Speaking of Duke, they were upset by Florida State Wednesday. Considering how some rabid Seminole fans stormed the court prematurely, it's amazing they were able to conclude the game. Just imagine if they were only up two points when that happened. The two double technical free throws J.J. Redick made would've tied it. You think maybe these educated fans realized they could've cost their school the game?

-It's fun to hear a few aggravated Uconn fans call up WFAN's Mike Francesa and give silly reasons why Rudy Gay doesn't have to be the Huskies best player for their school to win another championship. Judging by their reactions, you'd think maybe they weren't around two years ago when Emeka Okafor carried their school to its second title. Bandwagon?

-By now, everyone knows the deal with Garden owner Jim Dolan. It doesn't matter how poorly the Knicks play under Coach Brown and it's not about how poorly run they have been under CBA failure Isiah Thomas. In Dolan's eyes, they can do no wrong. Scary revelation: Why do I have a feeling Dolan wouldn't change his mind if the Knicks still hadn't won this season?

-An injured Stephon Marbury outplayed latest acquisition Steve Francis by a mile in a two-point loss at Memphis. But somehow, Francis wound up taking the final shot. Only in Knicks land.

-When do the New York papers finally stop putting this laughingstock on the front page and start recognizing the kind of job the Rangers are doing playing under the same roof. They do it with Coach Tom Renney, who commands a lot less money and doesn't act like he's God's gift. You'd think the Rangers turnaround would be the perfect model for how to get the Knicks back on track.

-After how he's backstopped the Rangers to the top of the Atlantic and lifted his home country Sweden to a gold medal with a remarkable save in the waning seconds, is there anything Henrik Lundqvist can't do?

-Martin Brodeur is so good in shootouts, the NHL is probably thinking of eliminating them altogether. Can someone say trapezoid?

-So what's this about the Yankees having a top pitching prospect in 19-year-old Philip Hughes? I thought they couldn't evaluate talent. Try telling that to a certain Daily News columnist who thinks their words are gospel.

-It's nice to see Jose Reyes taking pitches. Even if it's in an intrasquad game.

-What was more predictable? Joe Torre tabbing Randy Johnson for Opening Day or Carl Pavano being close to put on the disabled list?

-What would've happened if Pedro didn't get his custom-made Nike shoe for his toe? Just wondering.

-I still can't believe Sasha Cohen fell twice and took silver. Whatever happened to higher standards? But she is Juliet at least. And NBC wonders why ratings are down the tubes.

-The Olympics would have been better if Bode Miller had crashed on the slopes. Think of how symbolic it would've been. Almost like Paula Abdul going from having the hit song "Opposites Attract" to being an American Idol judge. What a country.